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#68 Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two teenager boys who are selected to be “re-educated,” a process by which “young intellectuals” (youths with at least a high school education, or educated parents) are sent to rural areas and used for cheap labor. Their new lives are deeply impacted when they are introduced to a pretty female seamstress and a locked suitcase filled with forbidden western literature. They quickly fall in love, both with the seamstress and the translated literature that opens their minds to new worlds.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is one of those book that I've been meaning to read for ages. I was first introduced to it by one of my high school teachers, but kept putting it off. When it was announced as a selection for the new book club readwonderland , I knew it was time for me to pick it up. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a short and straightforward work of historical fiction that takes place in Communist China during the 1970s. As a western reader, I always find this time period to be very disturbing and unfamiliar. Coming from a country where one is encouraged to finish high school and move on to college, the concept of being “re-educated,” where one is punished for being educated, is rather scary, and seems more like a scene out of a dystopia than historical fiction. The simple, harsh lifestyle of the the characters contrasts so deeply with my own lifestyle, which seems so consumerist in comparison.

I connected pretty quickly with the main characters of the book: the unnamed protagonist, a budding writer, and his more theatrical friend Luo. I loved watching how the forbidden literature that they discover opens new worlds for them that they didn't know existed. As a lover of books, I know what it's like to experience something new through a novel. I can only imagine how intense the experience would be if so many of the concepts expressed in the book had been forbidden to me for my entire life. The pacing is quite smooth for the majority of the book, with one exception. About 130 pages in, just when the book is getting the most intense, there is an abrupt change in perspective that seems to take the energy out of the book. Fortunately, once the book gets back to normal, that energy is found again.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an effective work of historical fiction. In the about the author section it is revealed that Dai Sijie himself was re-educated in China in the early 1970s. This makes me wonder, how much of this lovely little book is autobiographical, and how much is fiction?

Rating: four and a half stars
Length: 184 pages
Source: Library Sale
Challenges: This book is not part of any challenges
Similar books: For other books about 20th Century China, try Wild Swans by Jung Chang, The Girl who Played Go by Shan Sa, and The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan.
Other books I've read by this author: This is my first

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