This slim novel, set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, describes the reeducation of two teenage boys, sent to toil among peasants in the countryside. Since their parents have been branded enemies of the state, the boys have almost no chance of ever returning to their former comfortable lives in the city. Instead they have nothing to look forward to unrelenting work and hardship, carrying baskets of excrement up the hillsides to fertilize the fields, or working in the small village coal mine. Two things happen to relieve the monotony -first they discover and steal a suitcase full of forbidden novels, and second they befriend the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. They begin to educate the little Chinese Seamstress, with unexpected consequences.
What the Armchair Critics Thought:
We found interesting parallels in this story to the novel Bel Canto in it’s description of how “art” can transform ordinary, even unbearable situations. Opinions were mixed about the overall impact of this book. Some enjoyed the simple story, others felt an overall sense of foreboding that the boys were going to be caught and punished, which spoiled the flow of the novel. We enjoyed the humour in the book (such as the scene in which the headman has his tooth filled). We were all impressed with Sijie’s ability to write such a lovely book in his second language.