The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise

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The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: A richly-imagined story examining the plight of exploited workers in China. Rich and clever, but spends just a little too much time navel-gazing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: July 2018
Publisher: No Exit Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857302182

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The Emperor of Shoes is the story of Alex Cohen, the heir to a lucrative shoe factory based in southern China. More idealistic than his profit-obsessed father, and less motivated solely by the bottom line, he's unsure of himself: unsure whether he can continue his father's success. But complications arise when he starts to question how morally sound the business really is, and whether the workers are being given a fair deal.

There's a lot to unpick in this one, and a lot to think about. But I couldn't honestly say that I was excited by The Emperor of Shoes. The plot unspools slowly – a little too slowly, in my opinion – and while it's beautifully written, I did find myself wishing for a bit more incident. If that's reductive, then so be it, but I just wanted more. Slow-burners aren't usually my thing, but if the payoff is good enough, then it's worth it. I'm in two minds about whether this was.

It's interesting that the last book I reviewed was Ian Bremmer's Us vs Them, which explored much of the effects of relentless globalisation. This book treads some of the same territory, contemplating the harsh reality of profit-driven business and the human cost of relentless globalisation. It tears a few strips off capitalism, gives socialism a fair hearing, and examines Chinese politics and social values through a magnifying glass. Wise has done his homework, and doesn't spare anyone's feelings; to be honest, it's an uncomfortable read. The reality of how exploited foreign workers are for the benefit of more developed nations is something that's all too readily taken for granted and dismissed, and it shouldn't be. It's not just Jewish guilt that pervades this story, it's Western guilt.

One thing I've wondered a lot about lately are whether my politics are optimistic or pessimistic. I'd say The Emperor of Shoes definitely falls on the optimistic side – though it's excoriating in the picture it paints of exploited workers, it's with the sense that things could be better. The ending of the story was neat but incredibly positive – and it felt earned. This is one weighty read. But on reflection, I think it's worth your time. See what you think of it.

Bremmer's Us vs Them made for an excellent precursor to this book, but for more on the subject of exploitative capitalism Falling Off The Edge: Globalization, World Peace and Other Lies by Alex Perry is a great read (and feels incredibly timely for a book that's nearly ten years old).

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