Book Reviews

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa

Knopf, New York

Japan’s bloodbath
in China during the 1930s began in Manchuria, a resource-rich region in
northeast Asia. This prelude to World War II in the Pacific haunts Shan
Sa’s story of young lovers whose worlds collapse in a typhoon of despair. The
Girl Who Played Go
, the fiction winner of the 2004 Kiriyama Prize, has
an economy of prose that allows the novel to cover an epic time, while focusing
on the tragedy of a Chinese girl who loves a Japanese boy. This boy comes
to her as an enemy soldier trying to maintain his father’s samurai ethic;
she comes to him as a member of an aristocratic Manchu yellow-banner family
that has served the Qing emperors in Peking. His side is on the rise, hers
in decline.

The protagonists
meet in a public park, a place where one can play the ancient board game
of Go. Both play masterfully, initially knowing nothing of each other’s
identity. They are strangers in a game of strategy, much like their political
leaders in Tokyo and Nanking. The interplay of two youngsters and two empires
drives the narrative, allowing the author to counterpoise the Japanese story
with its Chinese counterpart. Family portraits from both sides illuminate
two teenagers driven to adulthood before their time, cheated of a full youth
and the critical years when they might have discovered their humanity — already
a challenge in a time of terror and terrorism with the Manchurian war regressing
into bitter guerrilla fighting, which results in atrocities on both sides.

Shan’s voice
is unmistakably Chinese — feminine but hard, finely tuned and precise.
Not a word is wasted, no excess of emotion shown. She colors her background
with a few swift strokes that a master calligrapher would admire. Her dialogue
has a staccato rhythm, somewhat like a Chinese Hemingway with bullet prose.
Ornamentation is not for Shan, stark reality is.

More than pleasure,
readers will become involved in a healing process. As horrific as the war
was, its aftermath has brought a dreadful hatred between the former enemy
states. Japan bashing dominates much of what comes through in recent Chinese
literature. This book offers a way around the sepsis wasting away a possible
healing. Shan has created two life-loving youths shattered in a hellish
war that carries them and millions like them to early deaths. Even-handed
in her treatment of both main characters, she allows a reader to see the
richness of both Japanese and Chinese culture, making us imagine how they
might each enrich the other once again

Reviewed by
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher