Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Crafting a historical drama to create a wrenching love story

The book is set in Manchuria in the 1930s and is narrated by a 16-year old Chinese girl and a Japanese soldier, whose lives inevitably collide

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

But this Chinese background of the officer's also serves another purpose. It allows him to disguise himself in Chinese clothes and go down to the town square to play go against the locals. In this way he comes up against the narrator of the other half of the story.

There are all sorts of other intriguing complexities as well. Go is a game of battle, and so acts as a metaphor for the historical

situation in the story. And is the officer in reality being sent into the town to act, even without his at first being aware of it, as a spy? A further division of loyalties occurs when it transpires that the two student friends of the go-player are secretly involved in a planned insurrection against the Japanese.

There are horrors too -- torture, executions, and betrayals both political and romantic. But there's also a sense of humor. The girl, thinking she's pregnant, visits a physician whose room bears the following advertisement: "Doctor famed over the four seas for his heavenly gift for bringing back the springtime of your life. Specialist in chancre, syphilis and gonorrhea."

And in a sense this is an old story -- soldier in love with girl from the country his army is determined to pulverize. Even so, it is told here with consummate economy and skill.

With its peacock-feathered hats, its scarlet brocade edged with gold, and the sunset throwing its crimson cloak over the hills, this novel has a great deal of stylishness and color. And in addition to drama, historical interest, and a wrenching love story that doesn't preclude plenty of frankly-depicted sex, it also contains an evocation of the distinct ethos of the Manchurian people and their region.

This book, in other words, is that enviable thing, an ambitious literary product that is all set to be a popular best-seller of its day. It isn't too far-fetched to compare it to Romeo and Juliet in the qualities it so effortlessly combines.

There's an interesting error on page 250 -- "This mad woman is steal jealous!" -- which proves that Adriana Hunter's excellent English translation was in fact dictated to a scribe.

North-eastern China in the 1930s was undoubtedly far more poverty-stricken in reality than it appears here. Nonetheless, you'll have to look far and wide to find a better new novel on an East Asian subject than this finely crafted story, satisfying as it is on so many different levels.

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