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The Story of Little Ai by Olga Gurian

The Story of Little Ai

Adventures of a Little Girl in Thirteenth Century China

by Olga Gurian translated by Nina Kossman

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-5174-1390-3
Publisher: CreateSpace

In her novel, Gurian adopts a mythlike tone while incorporating historical events into the story of a young girl in 13th-century China under Mongol rule.

Little Ai and her mother, seamstress Sui San, join a troupe of actors when all Chinese are expelled from the Mongolian capital following an assassination. They travel across China, observing the friendships and rivalries of the actors, slowly becoming part of the extended family, until Sui San goes missing and is presumed dead. The troupe disbands when they reach their destination, and Little Ai is left with a neglectful aunt. The narrative has a folk tale–like quality, from its formal dialogue—“The heir to the throne has returned suddenly in order to render sacrifice to the gods. He demands your presence. Do not delay carrying out the command of the one who sends for you”—to its vivid depiction of a bygone world: “Peasants in straw sandals drove their donkeys which were hardly visible underneath tall baskets full of silk cocoons. Small-time merchants were screaming in various voices; wandering chefs were clattering their dishes; a fortuneteller was setting up his tent by a mat on which a doctor had laid out his medicines for skin and eye diseases.” Chapter titles (“How the Lamp Went Out Three Times,” “How Little Ai Met Her Big Brother”) complement the folk-tale feel as well. The plot is less satisfying, with many chapters presenting minor conflicts and adventures that have little impact on the ultimate resolution. Titular Little Ai is present for much of the action, but she remains in the background, displaying no evolution over the course of the narrative and offering little emotional connection to the reader. Take, for instance, her response to Sui San’s apparent death, several chapters later: “I haven’t seen Mother in her coffin, and therefore I don’t believe it. My daughterly duty is to fulfill Mother’s will, even if she isn’t alive.”

A folk tale–style novel set in medieval China, but readers may want more to hold on to.