The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian
|The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: An interesting tale of the final days of the one clan of Evenki as told by an old lady recounting her life story, full of detail, but somehow falling a little 'flat'.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 311||Date: January 2014|
An old woman has been left alone in the mountain camp. Not totally alone, her grandson An'tsaur has stayed with her, to do the chores that she no longer has the physical strength to do.
She deliberately withholds her name from us, but tells us that she is an Evenki woman, 90 years old, and she was the wife of the last of their clan chiefs. As the remnants of the tribe have headed down-hill to settle in the town below, finally acknowledging that the old ways are gone forever, the woman settles down beside a fire that has burned for generations to tell us about the old ways, about her own life and the stories of her tribe.
The Evenki people are reindeer herders in the remote forests of Northern China and Russia.
This particular clan crossed the river from Russia a long time ago… but national boundaries are of no real concern to them. Their lives are dictated by their animals. When the reindeer need to move on to find food, the people pack up their shirangju, garner the embers to provide the continuing fire, and follow them, supplementing their diet with whatever grows or can be hunted in the forests.
Our story-teller has a simple tale to tell: it is the story of her own life in the heart of the clan. She goes back as far as her paternal grandfather in the day-to-day existence of her people but back beyond memory in the folk-lore and the rituals that are such an intrinsic part of it.
A family tree is provided to keep track of all the unfamiliar-sounding names and their relation to each other. Beyond this close-knit group of people few other characters pass through her life. Those who do have a profound impact however, because they bring the outside world, a world that is rapidly changing, into the heart of a clan that has no wish to join it.
Things fundamentally changed in the 1930s with the Japanese invasion. Whilst the Russians had mostly merely traded with the Evenki, and the Han Chinese mostly stayed out of their way, the Japanese wanted total control. All fit men would be conscripted for army training for instance. The Evenki hadn't really sought isolation, it was just the natural result of their way of life, but their introduction to the realpolitik of the 20th century quickly convinced most of them that their shamans were right and the newcomers would bring nothing but trouble and heartache.
The Last Quarter of the Moon is one of those books that you want to love. You see what others have said about it, know that you will find the subject matter interesting and hope for a tale to hang it all upon that will hold you through. Unfortunately, for me it didn't work. I'm still trying to figure out exactly why not.
The plot line is solid: there are the usual family squabbles, petty jealousies erupting into serious violence, marriages, births and deaths, runaways and unexpected returns, successful hunting trips and tragic ones. There are tender love stories, and unrequited feelings that undermine the souls of the poor folk kept apart by tradition and taboo. Woven into it all it the natural quilt of Evenki life and beliefs.
Perhaps providing that family tree was a mistake. Knowing that there would be a second husband and which children would be born to who undermines any suspense in the telling. When our heroine is lost, half-naked and hiding up a tree from an angry bear, we know ahead what the outcome will be. Much the same goes for all of the other participants. We know who will survive and who will not. Only the manner of their passing remains to be revealed. The result of this approach is an emotional disconnect that, for me, undermined the premise of the book as a novel.
Had it been a genuine memoir, I'd probably have felt more kindly towards it, but as a work of historical fiction, the supporting fiction just wasn't strong enough for me. Even as I write this I feel I'm being harsh on a work that does an excellent job of revealing a culture about which I previously knew nothing, and does so in lavish detail with none of it belaboured. But for some reason, it just didn't resonate loudly enough for me.
For more tales of the rural survivalists in this harsh part of the world I'd recommend The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa set in Mongolia and The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin on the shores of Lake Baikal.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian at Amazon.com.
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