What’s it all about?:
In a country where men dominate, this epic novel is first and foremost about women. As the title implies, the female body serves as the book’s most important image and metaphor. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900. Married at 17 into the Shangguan family, she has nine children, only one of whom is a boy, the narrator of the book, a spoiled and ineffectual child who stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings. Mother, a survivor, is the quintessential strong woman, who risks her life to save the lives of several of her children and grandchildren. The writing is full of life–picturesque, bawdy, shocking, imaginative. Each of the seven chapters represents a different time period, from the end of the Qing dynasty up through the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao years.
What did I think?:
This book can be described as a quick history of China’s more violent and turbulent years during one generation which is seen through the eyes of one boy, brought up as the only male amongst eight sisters, and he is completely obsessed with breasts. But not in the usual manner – he constantly craves his mothers milk after attempts to wean him off fails dismally. And there are a lot of breast references, almost every page has something about them or the nipple area in general! This induced much sighing and eye-rolling from me, I’m afraid – it just got a bit boring, and yet should have been empowering. Importantly, I do think it’s also a feminist novel, due to the strength portrayed by the women in the story, namely Mother and the eight sisters as the entire family suffers through deaths, tortures, beatings and betrayals. There are some pretty powerful scenes here, the imagery of which will be fixed in my imagination for a while, I think. It is interesting to note that although this book won a very prestigious prize, it failed on the “morality” stakes and was banned in China.
I’ve got to admit, I found this book a bit of a roller-coaster ride. It started off quite slow but I started to get into it after about 100 pages, then it tailed off again, then picked up, then tailed off yet again. I have never been swayed in my opinion so much before this novel, and it is probably testament to the brilliance of the writing that I stuck with it until the end. The characters themselves are not really drawn with much depth although they have the potential to be incredibly interesting (I’m thinking of the “kick-ass” mother here). Jintong, our narrator and male child, comes across as spoilt, weak, and incredibly disturbed, however there seems to be a bit of a theme of madness in the story, perhaps our author is suggesting too many hardships does send people over the edge? The spiritual elements of the story, including the “Bird Fairy” and the “Fox Fairy” left me a bit puzzled also, as I didn’t see a real need for them and did not feel they enhanced the narrative in any way.
Best bits? The writing, most definitely. I cannot deny that it was beautifully written, and there always seemed to be “something happening,” so the pacing was perfect. In this way, I can kind of see why the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 and I don’t regret having read it.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):