Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie

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Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: Not the easiest of reads, but it would repay patient reading by any fans of wordy, historical world fiction or a specific interest in Chinese history.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099521327

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A French female scholar, studying in China, finds herself caught up in the search for a lost, sacred text that was inscribed on an ancient scroll. The scroll was torn in two by Emperor Puyi years ago, and was lost. After falling in love with a young grocer called Tumchooq the young woman becomes caught up in tales within tales, as she finds that Tumchooq's father found and translated half of the missing scroll and became obsessed with finding the other half, and soon Tumchooq too becomes embroiled in the search.

This is a complex, literary work that looks deceptively short but actually requires quite a patient, slow read. You can't devour it in snippets, as when you return to pick up the story you find you've lost the thread of what's going on and who is who. It has shifting points of view, stories within stories, and layers of myth and history all wrapped up in complex language. I personally found it a little dry. I never really enjoyed studying history, and the lengthy passages about the Chinese emperors didn't interest me, and the language wasn't poetic or beautiful enough to ensnare me. It felt impersonal, and very intellectual, although I wondered if that had anything to do with the translation and if perhaps the original French has more feeling.

There are different styles within the book however, so as well as long historical or scholarly segments there are also diary extracts and little stories and personal recollections. I enjoyed these parts much more, as they felt more immediate and helped move the story forwards. The themes being touched on are wide ranging, from scholarship and religion to love and language. There are some moments of humour but on the whole this is a serious novel.

I can see that those interested in Chinese myth and history would enjoy the story, as well as linguists as there is much discussion of old, lost languages. I was a bit disappointed however, and would've liked more story to flavour the intense intellectualism.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more Chinese stories try Return to the Middle Kingdom by Yuan-Tsung Chen or if you enjoy travel/food writing then you might like Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Buy Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie at Amazon.com.


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