The Four Books by Yan Lianke

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The Four Books by Yan Lianke

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Heath
Reviewed by Andy Heath
Summary: The Four Books is a difficult and challenging novel, and not one for the feint hearted. It is an undoubted masterpiece but it really makes the reader work. Set in an era difficult to imagine for anyone brought up in a western culture it is a book that explores the full depths of the human psyche.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099569497

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The Four Books is a difficult, challenging novel and not for the feint hearted, or for someone looking for a page-turner. It really challenges the reader's perceptions and opens up a gateway to an era that is difficult to imagine for anyone brought up in a western culture. Set in Maoist China it tells the story of four protagonists and a memorable antagonist. The four, found guilty of anti-revolutionary crimes are undergoing re-education in a work camp governed by the child. With an Orwellian feel, The Four Books will come to be regarded as an undoubted masterpiece.

I have never read any of Lianke's previous work and I have to confess that it took me a while to get into the story. Several times, I started only to return to the translator's preface to see if I had missed something. The chapters are full of headings that seem to allude to other books. As you read, it becomes disturbing as you have the nagging feeling that this is the second book in a series and you should have read the previous work first. It is only from about halfway that you realise this is not the case. Once the penny drops, the mist clears and the novel becomes a joy. As you read there are islands of pure poetry within the prose, and like a sailor making port, you savour them when they are reached. Quite often returning to them repeatedly.

None of the characters have names. Their former professions identify them and Lianke uses this device to fuel the dystopian world he creates. For the reader, this makes it difficult to engage with them but this dehumanising aspect is very much the point. It is only later as the momentous events unfold that they regain their humanity. The antagonist, the child, is marvellously crafted. He is a character that stays in the memory long after the novel is finished. Balancing the fine line between benevolence and malevolence, he ties the novel together with masterful skill. Throughout he is the one that twists and turns the emotions of the reader more than any other.

The Four Books is fiction but its theme makes the unimaginable world of China's past very real. Lianke approaches the challenge fearlessly and he does not hold back, weaving his characters through a period of history that many would want to forget. He offers no apology, he does not offer any reasons, he just describes it all in a way that few modern writers could emulate. It is an important book, looking into the darker side of the human psyche and the philosophies it creates. A masterpiece but again, not one for the feint hearted. Anyone who accepts the challenge will be rewarded beyond measure.

If you enjoy Four Books, you may also enjoy:

Boy 23 by Jim Carrington
1Q84: The Complete Trilogy by Haruki Murakami

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Buy The Four Books by Yan Lianke at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Four Books by Yan Lianke at


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