This gorgeous peach-colored volume from NYRB classics is a beautiful addition to my Chinese literature collection. A startling and wonderful story centering on an interesting and atypical female protagonist.
It concocts a poignant tragedy from the personal life lessons endured by one girl who laments her fate within an unstable society. It also is the first book in a trilogy. While the themes are not as heavy-handed as in Mo Yan, they are clearly defined, and never cloud the storytelling. Women’s roles, and cultural revolution are discussed in the book through satire and allegory. The reading experience is not subsumed by politics, but this is not a tame novel. It follows Xiumi, whose body and life do not belong to her. With great insight and resolve she figures out how to get by in a family who does not place any value in her. This is later proven when her circumstances change and she is dispossessed. The imagery, and the violence incited by lust, treachery, greed, hate, and revenge, combine to paint a memorable portrait of a time and place and its people. Add to this a murder mystery and a drama of desperate emotions.
Led by dreams of paradise, with indirect suggestion of subliminal propaganda, within the search for utopia, Xiumi’s and later, Little Thing’s ideals are disenfranchised. Among their survival instincts is the struggle for female independence. Upon her eventual captivity, starvation, and return, she witnesses miracles and carries symbols of her life. I can only presume that these lives left dangling will be taken up in the next book.
This quirky and unpredictable family chronicle is rich in detail, suffused with luscious atmosphere, folkloric charm, and masterful storytelling. Its scope is epic, but its tone is intimate, engrossing, and comic, combining naturalism with historical flavor.
As Xiumi grows from ‘bumpkin’ roots, the subtle and overt violence leaking into her peaceful existence infringes on her innocence and freedom. The horrors lying in wait for her determine how she will respond to later rapid changes in fortune. In a worldview comprised of china alone, where other countries are as mysterious as fantasy planets, the product of modernization comes at the expense of leaving old traditions to die, trampling on 5000 years of history, while being the only option for the nation to progress. The flavors and scents and ephemeral pleasures, the nostalgic tone, within a country with growing pains, the fear and paralysis due to injustice and uncertainty, amid stunted quibblers losing hope in their backwater, who long for a better life, is tremendously moving.
Her life changes in Huajiashe midway through the tale are fascinating as well, as is Xiumi’s gradual metamorphosis into The Principle. She acquires more influence. Yet the novel never expands beyond the small settings of each narrative part. It deals in the microcosmic scale, while tackling grand topics. A triumph.