cover image Women of the Silk

Women of the Silk

Gail Tsukiyama. St. Martin's Press, $18.95 (278pp) ISBN 978-0-312-06465-5

An auspicious debut, this sensitively written, impressively researched novel covers 20 years in the life of Pei, a Chinese girl sent to work in a silk factory during the first decades of the 20th century. Quick-witted, inquisitive, spirited Pei spends her early childhood on a poverty-stricken fish farm; her uncommunicative parents consign her to the factory for the wages she will send home. Initially terrified, Pei soon settles into the communal routine, and finds the 12-hour factory day made bearable by the kindness of supervisors and fellow workers. Along with her best friend, Lin, she decides at 16 to go through the hairdressing ceremony, in which girls pledge to dedicate their lives to silk work instead of marrying, and move into the peaceful milieu of the ``sisters' house.'' Details of the process of spinning silk, the close bonds among the sisterhood, and contrasts between the tradition-steeped existence the young women enjoy and the upheaval attending the new communist regime create a compelling narrative. Tsukiyama's simple, elegant and fluid prose weaves a vivid picture of rural China. In delicately evoking the silk workers' world, she has opened a window onto an aspect of China few outsiders ever see. (Oct.)