The fourth book of my Man Asian Literary Prize odyssey has now been completed. This is set in Maoist China in the 1970s and 1980s and is not an easy read. There is little plot and the three sections each about sisters who are from a family of seven sisters and one boy (‘Little Eight’) read almost as separate novels and are not woven together at all. Though the overall impact of the novel is reduced by this arrangement, it may also represent my lack of familiarity with the construction of the chinese novel too.
I end up with mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it gives a deeply disturbing though I assume realistic account of the position of women in chinese society of this time and a lowly position they appear to occupy. Indeed the clamour by which their young brother, Little Eight, is greeted with despite seven daughters shows the pecking order between boys and girls. This in a society before one child per household was introduced which must cause parents some anxieties if their one is a girl.
The sisters are treated badly in society and by men and make their way despite of this. Their country upbringing contrasting to the urban towns they find themselves in, presumably another key feature of modern China as it moves more and more towards a urbanized society. The three sisters fate is influenced by attitudes towards them which are fashioned through the complexities of face.
I have tried to get closer to understanding the intricacies of ‘losing face’ and this novel certainly has this as a major theme. The complex web within which negotiating face takes place is hard to understand and this remains my own experience here in Hong Kong. I am not sure this book takes me any closer to its understanding but I do not doubt its importance in negotiating one’s pathways through life.
The male-dominated nature of chinese society surfaces quickly and forcefully in this novel, though men can suffer disgrace too if caught out in the wrong circumstance something which happens early on to the sisters father, who lost his influential position as Party Secretary through extramarital affairs. Actually more correct through having an affair which was discovered and the ,los of face caused his downfall.
It is an intriguing novel but not my favorite so far. I have two more in my possession now which takes my total on the long list to 6 so still 4 to unearth and the shortlisting is in February!!