With this richly told historical novel, English author Spurling (A Book of Liszts, 2011, etc.) takes readers back to the China of seven centuries ago.
Wang Meng is descended from an emperor yet is content to support himself and his wife with a minor bureaucratic post in the Yuan dynasty. Wang’s true calling is art. To his wife’s chagrin, the middle-aged man would love to spend his days contemplating waterfalls and painting landscapes; she wishes he had more ambition. Meanwhile, the country is in the midst of turbulence and upheaval. Bandits roam the countryside. Wang leaves his home several times, once at the behest of the White Tigress, a beautiful woman who leads a group of bandits. Wang himself is a gentle soul, but he has plenty of sense in devising military stratagems. The great strength of this novel is not so much the plot but the rich detail that sets the reader in the middle of China. As Wang paints waterfalls and witnesses beheadings, Spurling paints an exquisite story of a deeply decent man and his surroundings. One almost feels that the author just returned from the 14th century carrying a notebook brimming with observations large and small. Yet the story moves along when it needs to—it has action, some of it violent—but pauses often to describe some of the 10,000 things in nature. When Wang goes to prison and contemplates endless time, a friend observes that in the long run, “Emperors and shit buckets are all one.” Wang Meng was a real person famous for his richly detailed paintings, and this novel imagines the fabric of the last decades of his life. Spurling’s novel is a work of art in itself.
A thoroughly enjoyable literary sojourn by a master of historical fiction.