This recent novel-in-translation by the 2012 Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, originally published in China in 2004, embodies a labyrinthine web of changing alliances and terrifying vengeance. Set during the Boxer Rebellion, the turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese uprising against Western imperialism, it features pivotal figure Sun Meiniang, who reveals in the first sentence that she will kill her father-in-law in seven days.
Meiniang’s husband is the town butcher whose executioner father is ordered to devise the most diabolical death (the titular sandalwood death) for Meiniang’s own father – an opera singer-turned-rebel-leader – who has been coerced into surrender by Meiniang’s magistrate lover. Alternately voiced by Meiniang and her four men, the narrative dovetails with passages from an opera of the same name, quickly gaining momentum toward an epic crescendo.
Verdict: In the wake of Mo’s Nobel win, his upcoming titles will garner greater attention. However, demand for Death might prove higher than actual readership, not because of a lack of quality writing but for its power to conjure the most heinous scenes of torturous death. Mo’s “Author’s Note” warns at book’s end, “This novel of mine will likely not be a favorite of readers of western literature, especially in highbrow circles […] my novel will be appreciated only by readers who have an affinity with the common man.” Diligent readers will also need to detach themselves from the gruesome machinations of Mo’s “common man” to reach the final pages.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 1, 2013
Published: 2012 (United States)