Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

One of my favorite book genres is books about books.  I can spend hours reading lists of books, literary analyses of books, and books about people who love books.  This one is actually fiction, but it fits perfectly into the category of books about books.  It tells the story of two Chinese city boys who are sent to a remote village for "re-education" during Mao's Cultural Revolution.  There, they discover a hidden stash of Chinese translations of Western books, and the beautiful daughter of the region's only tailor.

Excellent, especially the descriptions.  I could picture myself in the village with the boys and I could feel their joy when they discovered the secret stash of books - and their desperation to get them at any cost.  It is literary in tone, but not in an inaccessible way.  And because it is short, it's not as intimidating to those who don't typically read literary fiction or works in translation (it was originally published in French).  This is a great introduction to literary fiction if you're afraid to jump in with a longer book, but I'd also recommend it for those who typically read and enjoy literary fiction - I can't imagine that you won't be impressed with the writing quality.

Entertainment Value
Obviously, this is not an action-packed, on the edge of your seat to find out what will happen next novel.  It's certainly not plot-driven.  I'm not even sure I'd say it's character-driven.  It's beautiful writing-driven (that's a new thing I just made up - someone put it in a textbook and give me credit).  With the exception of the Seamstress, I wouldn't say the characters really evolve, and it's not a book where a lot of things happen.  It's about the moving power of words, the importance of stories, and the life-changing properties of imagination and knowledge juxtaposed against a setting where creativity and knowledge are not only discouraged but cruely punished.  For me, that was entertaining.  But I have read reviews where the book is described as slow, and I can see that, for those used to fast pacing and intense plotting, this would seem less interesting.  I highly recommend that you read it knowing that it is a book that is about ideas, not a book that is about a plot (although the plot perfectly enhances the ideas the author is trying to convey). 

One note from this book: has anyone else noticed that things do not bode well for animals in literary fiction?  It didn't mess up the book for me, but there is a scene in this book where an animal dies a pretty awful death.  And it made me start thinking about animals in literary fiction and how they always seem to die or suffer in really terrible ways.  If you are an animal and you are in literary fiction, your outlook is grim.  Would it really be that un-literary to have a happy animal that does NOT die/suffer torture?  Can you think of any books that prove my theory wrong?


  1. I have had this book for so long but haven't read it. It definitely sounds interesting!

  2. Never had a chance to read it but its finally next on my list. can't wait to tuck into it.

  3. I recently posted about Sijie's novel (in relation to China's stated plans to shut down some of their labor camps) and linked to your review: