Chinese poet and storywriter Wang (American Visa, 1994), based in the US since 1985, offers a vivid if overstuffed debut novel of life and love in Red China. Ni Bing has been different right from birth, different in ways that only increase as she grows older and must choose between being ``a Party member'' or a ``foreign devil''—that is, someone who associates with foreigners and has foreign ideas. By the time Ni Bing makes that choice, however, she has lost all her faith in Mao and the Party. As a child she saw her mother, a talented dancer and teacher, publicly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution; as a teenager, she innocently got a young man into trouble with the authorities; and to atone she worked long hours in the fields before going to a teacher's training college, the only place she was allowed to apply. There, she was made to guard a desperately ill teacher who was being forced to ``confess'' her political errors. These political memories alternate with memories, some frightening and initially inexplicable, of her childhood. Both her mother and her paternal grandmother were unusually demanding, and Ni Bing felt close only to her father, a naval officer. Then, at the teachers' college, she meets Van, an older student who seduces her, promising that they will live together in America; but though he helps her get into a proper university, he soon proves to be selfish and domineering. Events move at a dizzying and sometimes barely credible pace, as Van's American cousin promises, and delivers, her a place in a US college. The new China is a lot like the old, though, and before she can leave, Ni Bing (who seems at times more a symbol than a character) must endure bureaucratic obstruction and corruption that would deter all but the toughest. A litany of horrors faced down by a true-grit heroine, narrated in a fashion too hectic, cool, and distant to be affecting.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 1996

ISBN: 1-56689-048-9

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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