In nineteenth-century China, women in the Hunan province developed a secret code, nu shu, for communicating with each other. Kept away from work and p...moreIn nineteenth-century China, women in the Hunan province developed a secret code, nu shu, for communicating with each other. Kept away from work and politics, forced to spend their lives in the women's chamber with bound feet, they used nu shu to talk honestly about their lives. After her own feet are bound, Lily forms a latong relationship with Snow Flower, a girl born on the same day as her, a friendship that is supposed to last until death. But as their fortunes and lives change, Lily finds that her friendship contradicts what her new family would want.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan transported me back in time completely and utterly. I could hear the sounds of the paladins coming down the street, see the wonderful sights and smell the food. Lisa See didn't overuse description or adjectives, but managed to evoke the time period. She also captured how isolated and distinct from the rest of the world this part of China was, at times I felt as though I was reading about 15th or 16th century life, not 19th century life.
She also did a good job describing the horrors of footbinding. Having already read Wild Swans, I thought I knew all about footbinding, but it is described in graphic detail in this novel. The descriptions were vivid and just reading them made me wince - feet broken intentionally? Blood and pus? Constant agony? It's hard for us in modern times and different cultures to appreciate exactly what about having bound feet would make a woman sexually appealing, but then I'm sure the same will be said in the future about many things we find attractive.
I felt that the first half of the book was amazing, but that the pace trailed off as soon as Lily and Snow Flower settled down into their marriages. It was much more fun reading about them growing up, their family rituals and their negotiations for marriage. There were also one or two anachronisms that did jar a bit - at one point Lily 'swept up the trash' and after a novel full of 'bed business' she suddenly 'had sex', a word choice that didn't seem to fit with the Chinese reserve at all. I think I noticed these more because I'm a Brit reading the American version.(less)
I've been a fan of Tracy Chevalier ever since reading Remarkable Creatures, but I hadn't yet read her most famous book, Girl With A Pearl Earring. Set...moreI've been a fan of Tracy Chevalier ever since reading Remarkable Creatures, but I hadn't yet read her most famous book, Girl With A Pearl Earring. Set in Delft, the Netherlands, in the 1600s, it's the story of Griet, a tile painter's daughter who must become a maid for the artist Vermeer when her father becomes blind and loses his livelihood. Gifted with a natural appreciation for and understanding of art, Griet lives for the moments in her day when she can help Vermeer with his work by grinding colours or assisting with composition. But both her work and her feelings start to blur the line between servant and master and Griet must soon make some hard choices.
There is lots to like about Girl With A Pearl Earring. One of the reasons I enjoy reading historical fiction is that I get to be transported to different times and places and Chevalier pulled off this aspect of the story well. I knew nothing about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century before reading this book but the atmosphere of the meat market and Papists corner and the canals jumped off the page and pulled me in. The religious element of the distrust between Protestants and Catholics was sensitively handled and engrossing.
The story was good too. I am not a big fan of art, but I found the descriptions of how to make different colours fascinating and the explanation of how Vermeer slowly layered his paintings to create the final effect was interesting. I also appreciated that the romance was subtly done in a showing but not telling kind of way.
But despite all of that I did have a problem with this book and that problem was Griet herself - I just couldn't connect with her as a narrator. She was very distant and matter of fact in her explanations of her thoughts and feelings, which robbed the book of any emotional impact or immediacy. Even when Grief was talking of bereavement I felt as though Chevalier failed to show us how she was really feeling in a way that would make the reader sympathetic to her situation. And because I didn't feel this connection with the main character, I wasn't so caught up in the story and didn't feel strongly what happened to Griet at the end. I connected with other characters, especially Vermeer's wife Catharina, but not Griet herself.(less)
This is going to be a hard review to write, because it's hard for me to find a standard by which to judge this book by. Told from the point of view of...moreThis is going to be a hard review to write, because it's hard for me to find a standard by which to judge this book by. Told from the point of view of Salim, who has moved from the coast inland to a nameless African country with remarkable similarities to the Congo, A Bend In The River is an observation of life in Africa following decolonisation. There is violence, corruption, political instability and periods of relative stability.
The reason this book is so hard to review is that techincally, it's not a story. So on all my assessments of narrative it falls short. There isn't really a plot, let alone one that it engaging. The main character is a vehicle for Naipaul's thoughts rather than being a 'real' character so I certainly didn't connect with him. The lack of these traditional story elements made this book hard for me to read and despite it being only 300 pages or so, it has taken me over a week to finish it. I got to the point a few days ago when I just wanted it done already.
But on the other hand, A Bend In The River is an extremely powerful piece of observational writing. Yes, not much happens but some of the things Naipaul writes about are very profound and clever. The character of Ferdinand for example, goes through a series of changes that reflect what is happening in the African countries themselves. One moment he is polite and dedicated to school and his bright future, the next he is doing all he can to get in with whoever has power at the moment, the next he is eschewing education for emphasising his tribal connections. Naipaul does an excellent job of showing the underlying tensions between groups of people that threaten to blow up at any moment, and this particularly works as Salim is an 'outsider' too.
The writing is very good too. Naipaul uses a simplistic style but there are plenty of underlying messages, meaning that the book repays any time spent analysing it. And that was the problem for me - I read this book at the wrong time. Some days I only had twenty minutes or so to devote to it, and the lack of plot became too much for me. It's a worthwhile book, but it requires time and concentration. If you like fast-moving plots, this isn't the book for you. If you enjoy reading about Africa and African history and go into it knowing that it is mainly observation, then this could be a very enjoyable read.(less)