Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Publisher: Anchor Books
Rating: 4/5 stars
Challenge: 100 Books 10, TIOLI (February Red Spine Challenge), 1010 Challenge (Fiction, General Category)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an enchanting tale that captures the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening. An immediate international bestseller, it tells the story of two hapless city boys exiled to a remote mountain village for re-education during China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. There the two friends meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, the two friends find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.
I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It's been sitting on my shelf for quite some time now, and I kept hearing such good things about it, but there it sat all the same. It wasn't until it fit the criteria of a reading challenge on LibraryThing that this charming book finally made it's way into my hands to read.
I honestly wasn't sure what to expect from the story, but imagine my surprise to find a gently told story with a window into the inner workings of another country, in this case China during the time of Mao's "re-education" of the population. Our characters in the book don't rage against the changes and upheavals in their lives; they accept them and move on and do the best they can with the lot in life that had been handed them. It is also a book about the love of reading and the discovery of romance. Our unnamed narrator and his friend Luo, two young boys from the city, are moved to a mountain for their "re-education," where they make friends with Four-Eyes, who has a secret that could destroy all their lives, a hidden suitcase filled with Western books. These books have been outlawed and are therefore looked upon by our narrator and Luo with some amount of reverence, and they beg and bribe Four-Eyes for the chance to read some of the novels. Luo also meets and soon falls in love with a young seamstress in the next village over, and he begins to share the novels with her as well, as she has never had the opportunity to read these stories before, as her whole life had been spent living on the mountain. As each of these four characters begin to grow through their various forms of re-education, in the case of the city boys learning the ways of living in the country and of the little seamstress learning that there is so much more to life than her small village on the mountain, we watch each of them truly become their own person and begin to see the parts of the small beginnings of their lives.
The story held me entirely, until about 3/4 of the way through the book, where for three short sections, the narrator changes from our initial, nameless narrator to first an old miller who was encountered earlier in the story, then to Luo, then to the little seamstress, and then just as quickly we switch back to the nameless narrator from the beginning. This sudden and inexplicable switching of narrators for such a small portion of the story and for, what seemed to me, no good reason, really pulled me out of the story for a moment and it took me sometime before I could get back into the flow of the story. In a book this short, to be pulled out of the story so close to the end of the book was very discouraging.
The distraction in narrator change aside, Dai Sijie has created a little coming of age story of sorts that may have you surprised by who grows the most with the continuation of the story, as I was, as well as a window into a countries cultural upheaval and how some of its citizens dealt with such change. It's a charming and delightful little book that won't take much time to read, but whose characters will remain with you for a great deal longer. Highly recommended.