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Monday, January 5, 2009

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Dai Sijie
184 pages
originally published in French*

This is one of those books that sort of defies review for me. It wasn't fantastic and it wasn't horrible. It was a simple read, easy to get into. But there is nothing that jumps out at me that HAS TO be said about it. I'll do my best though.

The setting is the 1970s in China during the Cultural Revolution. Our main characters are two teenage boys sent to the countryside for re-education, a common practice at the time. In most cases, young people spend two years living and working with the peasant before being allowed to return home. These boys are worse off though, because their parents have been declared enemies of the state; it is likely they will never be allowed to go home.

Most of their life is filled with manual labor. They have very few possessions and very little hope. One day they meet the teenage daughter of the tailor from the next town (aka the little Chinese seamstress), and the three become friends. Through a strange sequence of events the boys get their hands on several banned books. They spend their evenings hidden in their rooms devouring the stories by Balzac and other foreign authors, and reading tales such as The Count of Monte Cristo. One of the boys begins reading the books to the seamstress in an effort to seduce her.

That's all I'm going to tell you of the plot - this is really a short book and I don't want to give it ALL away.

What did I think of it? It was a nice little story. There's not a lot of depth. The characters don't change (much), there is not a great deal of action, the time period and culture are simply the background to the story. Like I said at the beginning, there just isn't much to say about it. But maybe you think differently?

One question for those who have read this book. Near the end there are a few chapters told from the perspective of two minor characters. Why?! In my opinion they interrupted the flow of the story and seemed very much out of place. Do you agree? Disagree? Any thoughts?

* I have read other books in translation before but I've never made a note of it in my reviews. I'm going to make a point to do that from now on.


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book and I agree with everything you've said. It was a very nice story, nothing spectacular though. There was not much action, like you said, and not a big development in character. The only problem is that I have to write an literary analysis essay on this book, and I am not sure what to write about :(

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

I read this book this past year and know that you mention it I have zero recollection on how it ends, even the switch of narration. I'd have to reread my review to see if it rings any bells.

Plays with Needles said...

I finished this book over the holiday and felt the same way. I didn't notice the change in narration -- maybe because I was listening to it? I did have ONE favorite part however. I loved the description of the Little Seamstress when she was first introduced. It was a beautifully crafted one (I'm going to find a copy of the book so I can copy that one paragraph) -- her little pink canvas shoes in the midst of all that gray, coal-y mountain scenario (kind of like a wood block print) has my needle intrigued...

Chelsea said...

You have all read this as a nice little story, but failed to see the political symbolism that was occurring. That's what makes the book monumental in it's story and why it became a bestseller. I think that if you educated yourself on the last century in China, you would understand much more about why this book had so much more to say than just being a nice little story.

Heather J. said...

Chelsea - Thanks for your input on this one. You're right that I don't know a great deal about the last century in China but I am familiar with the basics. And though I understand that the book is meant to convey a deeper meaning it just didn't do that for me unfortunately. I guess I want more from a book than just the message.

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