THE GIRL WHO PLAYED GO
Shan Sa, Sa Shan, , trans. from the French by Adriana Hunter. . Knopf, $22.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4025-4
In her first novel to appear in English (her two previous novels, published in French, won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes), Sa masterfully evokes strife-ridden Manchuria during the 1930s. The first-person narration deftly alternates between a 16-year-old Chinese girl and a Japanese soldier from the invading force. As in the Chinese game of go, the two main characters—the girl discovering desire, the soldier visiting prostitutes, both in a besieged city—will ultimately cross paths, with surprising consequences for both. Sa's prose shifts between lavish metaphor—the girl's sister, grieved by an adulterous husband, is "not a woman but a flower slowly wilting"—and matter-of-fact concision ("We weary of the game and kill them," the soldier says of two Chinese prisoners, "two bullets in the head"). The most absorbing subplot is Sa's careful rendering of the girl's sexual awakening. Though at first intrigued by a liaison with a revolution-minded student, she is reluctant to enter adulthood, a state she views as fraught with injury and falsehood, "a sad place full of vanity." To escape her increasingly troubled life, she becomes a master at go, eventually taking on the soldier, who is in disguise. As the two meet to play, they gradually become entranced, even while war rages around them. The alternating parallel tales add an extra spark of energy to this swift-moving novel, as Sa portrays tenderness and brutality with equal clarity.
Reviewed on: 09/29/2003