cover image Decoded


Mai Jia, trans. from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-13580-5

A bestseller in his native China, Mai’s first novel translated into English opens with the introduction of the Rong family, as told in Chinese folklore: aboard a ferry in 1873, Rong Zilai leaves China to study dream interpretation in order to save his grandmother from her nightmares. After her tragic passing, Zilai decides on another course. On his return, he finds that his grandmother has willed him her silver, and with this inheritance, he opens Lillie’s Academy of Mathematics, the predecessor of N University, around which the remainder of the narrative is based. We follow Zilai as he ages, and are introduced to generations of the Rong family, including Abacus Head, so named for her mathematical genius and her enormous skull; her son Killer Head, named for his even larger skull (which killed his mother during childbirth); and, finally, the protagonist of the novel, Rong Jinzhen, a descendent of Zilai’s. As the novel traces Jinzhen’s path through N University and the military—where he works as a code breaker, attempting to crack BLACK and PURPLE, the most sophisticated codes invented—the reader is steeped in the history of Chinese intelligence and mathematics. Mai’s careful attention to pacing and the folklore-inspired narration make for a fascinating story, neatly interwoven with complex mathematical theory. (Mar.)