Most helpful critical review
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A Little Gem
on 10 June 2009
It is the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and 2 teenage boys, our narrator and Luo, are sent to the countryside to be re-educated, their parents having been denounced as "enemies of the people". The novel recounts a portion of the 2 boys' life in the village on Phoenix Mountain, where they meet the eponymous seamstress and are instantly besotted; and also Four-Eyes, a cowardly bespectacled boy who is the unlikely keeper of the old suitcase full of (mostly French) literature.
The power of storytelling fuels the novel, from Luo's improvised lies, and the boys' sanctioned monthly movie re-enactments, to the narrator's late night re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo. Stories provide escapism, entertainment and enlightenment; it is literature that allows them both to forget the drudgery and darkness of their predicament. For Luo they are a means to an end, a way to cultivate and civilise the seamstress, and for our narrator, they are an education, and when he dips into Rolland's Jean-Christophe, the revelations come thick and fast: "Without him [Jean-Christophe] I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual."
Da Sijie is a careful writer; his prose is detailed and descriptive; at times humorous; at times graphically realistic, such as the improvised dentistry with a sewing machine, and the attack of lice in the old miller's cave. He's also heavily ironic throughout, and never more so than with the central theme, which might be said to be the re-education of the little Chinese seamstress. I'm not convinced by the chapters narrated by other characters, which seem to be randomly thrown into the novel, but otherwise I think this is an endearing story neatly told.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress won't teach you much about either Balzac or sewing, is readable in an afternoon, and is more a fable than a novel, but if you're not deterred by the seeming simplicity this suggests, you might just appreciate this as a little gem.