Year of publication: 1987 (English translation: 1993)
Setting & time: Rural China, mostly in the 1920s and 30s
This novel takes place in Shandong Province in eastern China, mostly before and during the second Sino-Japanese war. The narrative jumps back and forth between times and characters, but at the heart of it is a dramatic family story that begins in the 1920s when a greedy father sells his daughter into marriage with a leprous wine distiller and one of the men who escorted her to the wedding falls in love with her. The story is told by a narrator, the grandson of the central couple, who recounts their histories before and after they met, and the consequences of their meeting as they echo down the years.
The story is about tough, resilient and passionate peasants who are repeatedly driven to extremes by internal and external situations, during a tumultuous time in Chinese history. The descriptions of the war are often grotesquely and viscerally realistic, and the people are often ruled more by their passions than by rational thought, but they are always true to their character and as you eventually begin to know what drives them they become sympathetic and very real. Witness to all the events and weaving like a red thread through the whole story is the red sorghum grown in Shandong, from which the narrator’s grandmother brews her famous wine.
The novel is beautifully translated by Howard Goldblatt and, well, I don’t really know what else there is to say without resorting to superlatives, of which it is more than deserving, but which I am not fond of using (much). Let’s just say that this is a cracking good read of a literary novel that I heartily recommend. 5 stars.
Now I only have the Oceania book left and the challenge will be finished!