Sunday, April 6, 2008
A fictional account of the life of Wu Zetian, the 7th century noblewoman who served as concubine to one Tang emperor and then empress to his son before taking over the throne and declaring herself emperor of her own dynasty.
I was highly ambivalent (yet hopeful) going into this. While I was not expecting much from Ms. Sa--I'd read THE GIRL WHO PLAYED GO and found it to have many problems that made me cranky--I love the story of Empress Wu and was excited to realize there was a modern novel about her. I have also read a now out of print book by Annette Motley called GREEN DRAGON, WHITE TIGER. That book succumbs to many of the classic blunders of bodice-ripping historical pageants (particularly ones by white Americans that take place in Asia)--it's too long, a little overblown, and perhaps a teensy bit sympathetic to its very colorful heroine--but it does at least give a straightforward account of the things we know about Empress Wu. I was hoping for another (perhaps more nuanced) retelling.
And Shan Sa's retelling is more nuanced. I also appreciate that as a Chinese national, she might (presumably) have brought something of cultural memory of this loved and hated woman to the story that an American wouldn't have (or, maybe, she at least had to overcome the cultural memory). She also offers an unreliable narrator who forces the reader to reflect on what the true history was. However, I'm not entirely convinced that this unreliable narrator was an intentional creation on Sa's part.
The biggest problem of this book was disorganization of data. The only reason I could even follow the story at all was because I already KNEW what happened in intricate detail--and even then there was some puzzling through Sa's overly ornate and not always informative language.
In fairness, Shan Sa's work has been translated from French and it's possible that some of her English problems with confusing or silly language lie in a translation issue. I'll never know. My overriding problem with this book, though, was the disorganization. I really had trouble making it through to the end.
Anyone looking for a book to write? Maybe you can write a nice version of this story and let me know when it's ready. ;)