Thursday, August 28, 2008

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

rating : 4/5
genre: adult fiction/world literature

book 4 of 10 for the Book Awards Challenge ii

The blurb on the back of my book says this book is "enchanting." That word doesn't fit for me. "Enchanting" seems to give me the impression that there are charming and cheerful things happening, and this story takes place in the mountains of China during the Cultural Revolution. There is very little in their peasant village to enchant our nameless narrator as he and his best friend Luo are forcibly relocated there to be "re-educated" by doing peasant work alongside those who live there.

One word that does work for me is "affecting" or maybe "passionate." Soon after beginning their backbreaking re-education, our narrator and Luo get a copy of a translated Western novel, written by Balzac. Despite the fact that Western works are strictly forbidden by Chairman Mao, they read anyway and a new world of beauty and purpose is laid before them. Suddenly life has so much to offer beyond buckets of sewage and coal mines; the words of Balzac stir such passion in the friends that it leads them to share the book with a beautiful seamstress in a nearby village. Their relationship with her makes life even more worth living and soon the three are reading together often - with unintended consequences both good and bad.

What I loved about this book is its portrayal of the worth of a book - how words and literature can raise a life above its circumstances and create connections between people. I'm also a sucker for a book about finding beauty in the midst of dire circumstances. Sijie has a precise and comfortable style of writing - and the way we never know our narrator's name and that our seamstress is ever only called "the Little Seamstress" gives the book a fable-like quality. The narration flagged in the middle for me a bit - going off on a tangent that felt out of place with the rest of the book - but when I finished, I could see what the purpose was. I liked that this story took me to a different (albeit sad and horrible) place and helped me find a glimmer of beauty and hope.

7 comments:

bethany said...

oh, I will be reading his soon!!! sounds like a great book, i can't wait to give it a read :)

Tricia said...

I agree with you--enchanting isn't the right word, but I really really liked it. I didn't know it qualified as an award winner--Yay! Which award is it?

Corinne said...

Tricia -
It was a Library Journal Best Books of the Year :)

bermudaonion said...

That book is on my wish list. Even the cover captivates me.

Anna said...

What a great review! This is on my TRL, and I think I might move it closer to the top!

--Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Trish said...

I've been wanting to read this one--and I LOVE the cover--so beautiful.

erin sheely said...

Hurray! I just ordered it from Amazon

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