I had been anticipating/avoiding this book because I've heard some really great things about it, but I had been somewhat reluctant after hearing that it was quite violent. Violence in itself doesn't bother me, but lately I just haven't been in the mood for reading super graphic stuff. However, I found I had nothing to fear here.
The book is an interesting one in terms of structure. We follow Wang, a taxi driver as he follows his route in Beijing not long before the 2007 Olympics. He is married with one daughter and is mostly concerned with his wife and daughter and going about to his day to day business. Until one day, letters are left behind in his cab. Letters that describe stories...(are they?) of various points of Chinese history, filled with physical, emotional, sexual violence, forbidden loves and the struggle to survive.
What are these letters? Who are they really for? Why does Wang feel his family is being watched? WHAT IS GOING ON?
I don't want to write more since that might give it away, but I thought this was a great book. I didn't quite "enjoy" it but it was well-written (despite me reading an ARC) and I did learn a bit about Chinese history. Sometimes there is a bit too much detail for me (and I think the author did take some liberties occasionally) and I skimmed here and there. But overall learning about these various time periods, folklore, customs, etc. was all fascinating and it's quite clear the author has done her research.
Normally I hate it when the book alternates views, but here it worked. The letters are short stories in and of themselves and we always eventually return to Wang's story. The characters are also mostly well-written enough to be distinct from one another, but I'll admit that sometimes I was confused as to who was supposed to be who in the letters. Another detriment is that it appears the plot is "stuck" in a cycle of sorts. Again, don't want to get more into it because that would give it away, but when I put the book down I became confused because it appears there's no getting out of it and I'm not entirely sure if there is something the reader is supposed to derive from that.
But it was a great read and I'm glad I read it. It's not super long but with such detail I somewhat wished I had saved this for an airplane read instead. And as I mentioned, there is violence in various forms: physical, emotional, sexual. It's mostly not described in great detail (the section with the emperor and the concubines was a bit detailed though), but it's prolific throughout the book that it's difficult to avoid in either story lines that's set in the relative present or the past. It includes scenes of torture, murder, rape, a castration, eating dead people/animals, etc. The book is not a happy one and there were those who complained about this but I think the author had a point in focusing in perhaps the darker aspects.
I would recommend it. I'm not sure if I'm interested in her other, previously published works but I'm definitely keeping an eye out for her next book.