The Invisible Companion was published in 1986. It is not autobiographical, but the outline of the story basically corresponds to Zhang's own life experiences: A nineteen-year-old girl Xiao Xiao goes to the Great Northern Wilderness during the Cultural Revolution, gets married with an urban youth also from Hangzhou Chen Xu, bears a child, and soon divorces. She sends the one-month-old infant away to the paternal grandparents in the south. Xiao Xiao considers Chen Xu as the embodiment of her ideals - justice, honesty, and sincerity. But after marriage, she painfully realizes that she was wrong. Chen Xu constantly tells lies, cheating her and others. She questions the "truth, beauty, and virtue" once she regarded as the expression of human nature. Eventually she realizes (It is also Zhang aims to convey the theme that) everybody has an invisible and irrational self hiding under the surface of the rational self and controlled by the subconscious - the title "The Invisible Companion." Zhang (1996e: 367; 2002c: 74) herself states that this novel "definitely has no intention to reflect the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, to re-present the urban youth' life in the Great Northern Wilderness, or to probe into the moral issues of love and marriage."
But I intend to read the novel from the angle of motherhood and mother-child relationship. In her review article, Samira Kawash (2011: 990, 996) points out that motherhood studies have been "fragmented and discontinuous" in feminist research (see also Ross 1995). We have actually approached this theme of mother-child bond from reading the texts by Xiao Hong's The field of Life and Death and Zhang Ailing's Love in a Fallen City. In Xiao Hong's novel, women live in loveless family life in various interpersonal relationships including the one between mothers and daughters. Mother Wang even kills, deliberately or accidentally, her three-year-old daughter in order to survive, in order not to be "a wreck" (p.10). Golden Bough's mother scolds, curses, and beats her at will. She spit on her face, and violently kicks her daughter when she sees Golden Bough picks up green tomatoes: "Her mother pounced on her like a tiger, and soon Golden Bough's nose was bleeding" (p. 23). In Zhang Ailing's Love in a Fallen City, after Bai Liusu is spitefully and ruthless scolded and derided by her sister-in-laws, she comes to her mother for consolation, but only gets disappointment. Her mother replies her: "Staying on with me is not a feasible long-term plan. Going back is the decent thing to do" (p. 2). She suggests that Bai Liusu should go back to her late ex-husband family as a chaste widow enduring life-long loneliness and hostility. In despair, Bai Liusu "was kneeling forlornly by her mother's bed. ... She started sobbing aloud. 'Mother, Mother, please help me!' Her mother's face remained blank as she smiled on without saying a word. Wrapping her arms around her mother's legs, Liusu shook her violently and cried, 'Mother! Mother!' [But] [t]he mother she was praying to and the mother she really had were two different persons" (p.4). In another masterpiece of Zhang, The Golden Cangue, she writes that a mothers inhumanly destroys her own son's and daughter's happiness.