This riveting melodrama is the first full-length novel in English from the young Chinese author of the brilliant novella Raise the Red Lantern (1993). Cinematic vividness and speed are in fact distinguishing features of the powerful story of Five Dragons, an ambitious young man who escapes the misery and famine that devastate his provincial homeland for ``success'' in a teeming city (near Shanghai) itself endangered by widespread poverty, gang warfare, and Japanese military occupation, in the years just before Communism. Taken in by the Feng family proprietors of a thriving rice emporium, Five Dragons is seduced into marriage with its wanton daughter Cloud Weave, then later weds her embittered younger sister Cloud Silk. Prosperity and power ensue, but nothing mollifies this stoical antihero's envy and indignation; nor is there solace in the children he siresa brood of greedy, sexually voracious, murderous mutants whose rapacity reaches a feverish climax as the frail Five Dragons, dying, is overpowered by the worthless son who has coveted even his father's gold teeth. The concatenation of horrors is relentless, and the imageswhich make ingenious connections among hunger, aggressiveness, and sexualityare appallingly graphic and violent. Yet Su Tong's characters, simultaneously grotesque and realistic, are drawn with such intensity that we believe them capable of anything (``The men in our family are born killers,...the women senseless sluts''). Page by page, the novel stuns us with a sequence of hallucinatory, disturbing inventions: the savage beating of a small boy and the hideous revenge he exacts; the murders of several prostitutes, ordered by the enraged, syphilitic Five Dragons, the image of his ravaged, suppurating body rising up defiantly out of the vinegar baths that keep him, against all odds, stubbornly still alive. Rice ensnares, and outstares you; no matter how extreme and operatic its content, you simply cannot not believe it. Balzac and Zola would have recognized a kindred spirit in Su Tong, whose extraordinary pictures of the extremes to which human beings drive one another and themselves seem scarcely inferior to their own.