Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie: Book Review

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Cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

4 Stars

Two young men, children of parents that the Communist government in China deems enemies of the state, are basically exiled to a remote mountain for “re-education.” Their parents’ “crimes” don’t even warrant the word; they’re basically just too educated for the government’s comfort. The teens find a harsh life waiting for them on the mountain. They must plow fields and dig in mines and haul human waste around. If the local party leader is upset with them, he makes their lives even more miserable.

They eventually meet a local tailor’s daughter. The little seamstress, as she’s known, is the most beautiful girl on the mountain. One of the teens of course tries to win her heart. He takes a novel approach and starts telling her stories out of Western literature, in an effort to make her better company for himself. And so time passes as the boys wait to see if their period of “re-education” will ever end.

This is so hard for me to review! I had some issues with the boys throughout. Luo, the one who tries to win the girl, is basically a nice guy but–c’mon. He’s trying to “improve” the little seamstress? So she’ll be a better girlfriend? Who does he think he is? I was listening to this so maybe I misunderstood something, but I really don’t think so. But then–I got to the ending. And I loved it. And that’s all I can say.

I also loved B. D. Wong’s narration. He has a nice voice and a nice delivery. If my library has any more audio books that he’s narrated, I’ll gladly give them a try.

I enjoyed the imagery in the book as well. It was very short, maybe 4 hours, and enough happened to keep my attention, but at the same time I feel like I can clearly picture this misty Chinese mountain and these harsh rural villages. As someone who likes to use way too many words when writing, I’m impressed when an author can pull this off. And especially considering that the book is a translation. Ina Rilke did a fabulous job with that.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Chinese re-education, but what a horrible, effective practice. Take the kids who are going to have the best opportunities at education, and embracing new ideas, and y’know, revolutionary ideas, isolate them and send them out to the wilds to suffer under the hands of uneducated peasants, and you’ve kind of shut down any immediate governmental threats. Sure, you’re probably setting up big trouble for the future, but you’ve bought yourself time to plan for that. Sheesh. Whose mind comes up with this kind of bs? Can you imagine?

At this length, I would recommend anyone give this book a try. I was surprised and very pleased at the end and I think most readers will be too.

Read an excerpt.

Buy Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress at

Books in Translation Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site. My opinions are completely my own.

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