Just before the pandemic began I took out this book from library just in case I had the time for it. The lockdown began, the library was closed and now I had time for this book I had picked up by chance; with it’s first sentence, I had the feeling there was something in there that might be worth reading.
“The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket…Their daughter’s life would end this day…”
The characters are many and varied, from all walks of life in the small town of Muddy River. The novel follows their daily lives, their struggles, their hopes and desires in late 1979 Communist China. While some are victims of circumstance, others question to status quo.
- Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu are the parents of counterrevolutionary Gu Shan who has been sentenced to death for crimes against the communist party.
- Mr. and Mrs. Hua are former vagabonds who wandered the roads from town to town. Years ago, they were forced to give up their their daughters; girls they had encountered in their wanderings who they had taken in and cared for.
- Bashi is the town pervert who’s impulsive and ignorant decisions have unintended consequences.
- Nini is the deformed little girl who is treated as a burden in the family and wishes to escape them somehow.
- Tong is a young boy with an alcoholic father and a submissive mother.
- And finally Kai. Oh my dear Kai! My favorite character. Kai is the radio spokesperson for the government. She finds herself at odds with her marriage while at the same time secretly supporting the counterrevolutionary cause.
A big part of what makes this book special are these flawed, human characters. Li crafts these characters with a rich background so you can understand who they are and further on can appreciate their trajectory; so you can understand their reasoning, their motivation and how some change, either for better or worse, is either a consequence of their own actions or of things that are out of their control. One particular character adds some conflict to the novel but purely out of ignorant, selfish actions that has consequences on others.
Some characters I enjoyed immensely, others I didn’t care for but can appreciate them none the less.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story. At the beginning of the novel, Gu Shan’s execution either directly or indirectly sparks a chain of events that in some way change the lives of the characters starting with her parents.
While Teacher Gu wants nothing more than to move on with his life and holds some resentment for his wild child daughter, Mrs. Gu is consumed by her grief and wants some sort of justice for her daughter. Their choices pull them apart in different directions, one confining himself into the box of the Communist government and the other outraged into action.
The story as a whole depicts life and loss under an oppressive regime.
“They were all sufferers in their despicable pain, every one of them, and what right did he have to laugh at the woman whose husband was pouring his heart out to him, a man in sincere confession to a fellowman?”
First off, one important factor that made this book so enjoyable for me is the author’s writing style. This book is brilliantly written in it’s language and tone; lyrical, melancholic and haunting, at times. These characters feel like actual people as the author weaves the tapestry of their lives, each thread rich in the color of the author’s style portraying a realness I haven’t read in a long time, each thread tied to the other; an unweaving of one will unravel the other.
I’ve seen some reviews in which some readers did not like the book because it was depressing. I get that. As readers, we should stick to what we like. However, I would say going in that taking into consideration this book is set in Communist China, this isn’t a light read. I myself did not find it particularly depressing, I found it REAL! With that in mind, don’t expect a “happily ever after.” This reads as something that could’ve actually happened and that’s what makes some of these characters special.
Other reviewers felt that without some knowledge of the historical context the novel takes place in, they felt a little lost but I myself did not feel this way. If anything, it makes me want to look further into it as I went into this book with little knowledge of the political and social landscape of China at that time.
Historical fiction based on World War II; those books are a dime a dozen. If you want to read something different by diverse author, I cannot recommend this highly enough!