When I recently bought a new copy of Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress so I could write a review, it was because I had remembered loving the story when it was first published in 2001 and wanted people to “discover” it again. I thought this slim novel had been one of those books that found early hardcover success—it was an international and New York Times bestseller—but over time had lost its audience and disappeared. So you can guess how thrilled I was to find that it is in its thirty-eighth paperback printing and that a world of readers has found this book and loved it too. Still, you may never have read it so I am writing this review for you.
When people say to you, “this is a little gem of a book,” this is the kind of book they are talking about. But make no mistake—this isn’t a diamond-you-need-to-see-with-a-magnifying-glass kind of “little gem,” this is a five-carat emerald-cut diamond of beautiful writing and storytelling.
On the surface this is the story of two young men, the teenage sons of denounced enemies of the state, who have been sent to Phoenix of the Sky Mountain near Tibet to be reeducated during the Cultural Revolution—and the young Seamstress they meet and both fall in love with, one reciprocally and one jealously. They are sent to the mountain with a third outcast from Beijing, Four Eyes, who carries with him a secret suitcase of illegal Western novels.
Luo is the son of a dentist, who was denounced for, among other things, having boasted of fixing Chairman Mao’s teeth. Luo is also a fabulous storyteller, a skill that impresses the headman of their village so much he pays for Luo and the unnamed author to visit the nearest big town so that they can watch movies and come back to reenact “oral cinema shows” for the enjoyment of the townspeople. This respite of two days from the backbreaking work of their reeducation is a boon both boys relish. It is during one of their visits that they meet the beautiful Little Seamstress and their visits away from the village take on a completely new frisson of excitement.
At some point, and it’s wonderful how it happens, they come into possession of Four Eyes’ suitcase of novels and they discover the beauty of reading—the author for the joy of it, Luo so he can impress and educate the Little Seamstress.
Neither of them could ever anticipate the outcome of their endeavors but what happens is so unexpected and yet so satisfying an ending you can’t help but be happy.
The story is deceptive in its simplicity. The author, in his quiet beautiful way, seems to tell a straightforward tale about three young people but as you read you are taken deeper into the mountain and into the hearts of the characters and realize that everyone involved is getting a re-education – just not the one the State expected.
This is a book about growing up and the choices that you face and must make as the adult world demands more of you. It is also a book about the cost of freedom, the definition of love, the deep connections of friends and family, and the importance of courage, but mostly it is about the joy of reading, of discovering authors and stories that take you out of your own life and let you dream of worlds and possibilities greater than your surroundings, that let you see a world you can make come true.
At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin—as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed. From within the hopelessness and terror of one of the darkest passages in human history, Dai Sijie has fashioned a beguiling and unexpected story about the resilience of the human spirit, the wonder of romantic awakening and the magical power of storytelling.