Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: 'Border Town' by Shen Congwen

Shen Congwen (1902-1988 )
Border Town (1934)

169 pages

This wonderful novel provides a look into life in China before the communist revolution. It is a short work (170 pages with notes) and has the feel of a story one might imagine while viewing a painting of a pastoral scene --- in an American context, say a painting by Winslow Homer. The characters are idealized in a way, too perfect and pure in their thoughts and behavior, but this 'thinness' in complexity is more than made up for by the richness of Shen Congwen's description of the scenery and events.

The story develops around Cuicui, a young girl who lives with her grandfather in rural China. Her grandfather operates a ferry boat a short distance from a small, provincial town, a critical link across a wide river that separates the people of the town and the interior lands beyond it from the outside world. Cuicui spends her days helping her grandfather with the ferry and with other chores around the house they have near one of the ferry docks. The grandfather performs his work with pride and a smile, and is respected by the townspeople and travelers. Cuicui and her grandfather share a happy, seemingly carefree life in their home beside the river.

As the novel opens, Cuicui is coming of age and is beginning to feel the pull of romance and love, even as she fears the challenges these feelings imply to her duty to and her love for her grandfather, and to her desire to stay with him and help him. At the same time, her grandfather sees the changes in his granddaughter, and feels the weight of his advancing years, worrying what might happen to Cuicui if she is not married before he dies.

Out of the love Cuicui and her grandfather feel for each other and their concerns for the future, Shen Congwen weaves a beautiful portrait of early 20th Century rural life in China. As the grandfather searches for a husband for Cuicui, trying at once to find the best possible candidate and at the same time to sound out Cuicui on who she might be interested in, we get a portrait of the lives of townspeople, their relationships and their customs. Descriptions of public celebrations, private conversations and the thoughts and acts of individuals provide a fascinating image of life in rural China before the communist revolution overthrew the old social order.

Other reviews / information:
Dylan Suher, in The Front Table , the Seminary Co-op Bookstore Web Magazine

short biography of Shen Congwen in China Culture site

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