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)
Although the cover of Bi’s novel displays a character for “triple happiness” – ostensibly representing the eponymous three sisters – readers shouldn’t expect a happily-ever-after tale. After seven daughters, Party Secretary Wang sees his self-esteem redeemed with the birth of a son. Firstborn Yumi, the de facto matriarch, reclaims the family’s dignity by parading the prized baby before her father’s mistresses. But Wang’s philandering shatters Yumi’s own marriage prospects, and Yumi leaves the constrictive Wang Family Village as the lesser second wife of an older city official. Third sister Yuxiu eventually joins Yumi’s household, having nowhere else to go as she is “ruined” after being brutally gang-raped. The promise of an education helps seventh sister Yuyang escape, but her academic career is hardly stellar.
Verdict: Bi (The Moon Opera) is an award-winning Chinese novelist and screenwriter, but his presumptive efforts to capture the three sisters’ deepest thoughts and feelings prove superficial and unconvincing. Readers interested in the challenging lives of China’s ordinary citizens during the Cultural Revolution will better appreciate such resonating titles as Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Yu Hua’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, or Xinran’s nonfiction The Good Women of China.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 15, 2010
Published: 2010 (United States)
Part of Canongate’s much-praised Myths Series. Su Tong – best known Stateside for his novella Raise the Red Lantern, which became an Oscar-nominated film by legendary Zhang Yimou – breathes life into one of China’s oldest myths. Binu is a devoted wife who leaves her native village to search for her missing husband, one of thousands of workers kidnapped to build the Great Wall.
Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: A Survey of New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2008
Four short stories and a longer novella are linked together to create a mosaic of disparate voices that share a visceral longing for a time – and place – forever past. Chu adroitly leads readers through a contemporary Taiwan displaced by Japanese colonial overtones mixed with inescapable Western cultural influences.
Chu’s book is an exercise in chaotic cultural survival, from “Death in Venice,” about a young writer who finds himself more involved with his characters than his own life, to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in which a young office worker decides she will spend her bonus on the perfect Tiffany diamond ring, to the book’s titled story, “The Old Capital,” about a young woman who travels to Kyoto to meet an old friend, which causes her to reconsider her life since she and the friend were young students together.
Review: “Windows: Asian Literature in Translation: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2007
Published: 2007 (United States)
Here’s the updated second edition of what was already considered the definitive overview of modern Chinese literature in English translation, with representative writing from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. With China poised to become a dominant world player in the 21st century, this anthology is a great introduction to some of the very best in Chinese language fiction, poetry, and essays.
Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2007
From the celebrated author of Rice and Raise the Red Lantern comes another memorable work, this time about an immature 14-year-old installed as emperor of the fictional kingdom of Xie, leading to an eight-year reign marked by dissolution, violence, and tragedy. Only when he is deposed does he finally discover his own humanity and achieve a sense of earthly peace.
Review: “New and Notable Books, AsianWeek, April 7, 2005
Published: 2005 (United States)
From the author of Red Sorghum comes a monumental novel that follows 20th-century China through the lives of the eponymous woman and her nine children, none of them fathered by her sterile husband. The birth of her last child, the one boy, is a complicated, stupendous feat that brings in the village vet, the midwife, and finally a Japanese army doctor. Mo’s superb writing is so visceral, his descriptions so vivid that the smells, sights, and feelings become larger than life.
Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, January 6, 2005
Published: 2004 (United States)
Okay, call me a terribly old fuddy-duddy, but I just don’t get the lure of reading about the sex lives of misdirected, apathetic teenagers. I know there’s an audience out there because Doll is an international bestseller with rights sold in 17 countries. Based on her own diaries, Sue wrote Doll at age 17 about her own encounters and adventures beginning at 14 (!). And I suppose it’s quite the commentary on the lost youth of a too-fast-changing China. She’s certainly precocious. And no surprise, she’s already got her next novel out, although it was immediately banned in China. These days, that’s the best guarantee for lucrative sales.
Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, September 10, 2004
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2004 (United States)
Don’t be put off by the tacky cover with the bare chest of a necklaced young man. The story within, with all its rawness and shock, is hard to put down. Five Dragons, an orphaned young man on the verge of starvation, is given a job in the rice emporium belonging to the Feng family in 1930s China, a time marked by widespread famine. The Feng family treats Five Dragons no better than a dog; Five Dragons reciprocates with beastly behavior. His fate remains intertwined with the proprietor Feng and his two daughters, and through the decades, the results move toward greater brutality and final tragedy.
Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, July 28, 2004
Published: 2004 (paperback reprint; United States)
An uncensored glimpse into the suffering lives within a rural Chinese community reeling from the utter violence that haunts the town as a result of a brutal rape, which results in a suicide by hanging, which leads to the bloody retribution wreaked upon the rapist’s wife and his favorite prostitute.
Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, November 28, 2003