Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie is a slim volume, coming in under 200 pages, but it does not feel short or insubstantial. Rather, it seems to me to be a study in how to write a novel that contains precisely what it must contain to achieve the author’s endpoint and nothing else.
The novel is narrated by the main character, whose name we never learn, so I will call him MC. He is relating the story of his “re-education” as a teenager in China in the early 1970s. He and his friend, Luo, are sent to a remote mountain village to work off the sins of their parents; one of their friends, whom they call Four-Eyes, has been sent to a neighboring village. During their time on Phoenix Mountain, the boys meet the daughter of the mountain’s best tailor, and it is around these four characters that the story revolves.
From the opening scene, where the village’s headman examines MC’s violin upon the boys’ arrival in the town, I was hooked, not just by the story but by how the story was written. The characters were developed just to the point they needed to be for you to understand their actions; the anecdotes related by the main character were just enough to bring the plot to its climax.
And then there was the title. In my experience, the title of a book tends to be either obvious or somewhat randomly chosen. Not so with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Early on in the story, the title elements — Balzac and the Little Seamstress — were present in the story, and yet it wasn’t until the very end that I understood why they had been chosen for the spotlight. I’ll not say more on the topic, as part of the joy of reading the novel was, at least for me, unraveling this mystery!