Sinoist Books, 2020
"once your soul is lost, it's not easy to get it back."
First things first: my thanks to Sinoist Books for asking me if I would be interested in reading this novel by Su Tong, an author whose work I admire. I didn't get to the Netgalley copy on time so I bought my book, but thanks so much anyway. If you don't know Su Tong's books, that's a shame, but you might be familiar with Zhang Yimou's haunting film Raise the Red Lantern, which is taken from Su Tong's short story collection of the same name.
Shadow of the Hunter is another fine novel by this author, which through the use of history, metaphor and magical realism, makes a number of observations about China's past, present, and future. Divided into three parts, this story begins as Baorun's grandfather loses his soul. He remembers that he has some of his ancestors' bones that he'd hidden in a flashlight and buried, but because he "didn't have anywhere special to bury them at the time," just can't remember where. Some of the residents on Red Toon street aren't happy when he starts digging at their properties, which used to be his family's lands, but he's soon joined by others when he pretends to one of the residents of the street that he's actually looking for gold. Because of all of the trouble, he is sent to Jingting Hospital, where he continues to dig , driving his daughter-in-law crazy because of all of the bills he wracking up doing so. Baorun is sent by the family to the hospital (where he becomes a "celebrity" because of his incredible bondage skills) to take "proper responsibility for him." As the story with the grandfather continues, the author makes Baorun his central focus in thisf part of the novel, especially his desire to befriend a young girl known as Fairy Princess. It is also at Jingting Hospital where he meets Liu Sheng, who also lives on Red Toon Street. Although he knows Liu Sheng by family reputation, they'd had nothing to do with each other. Liu Sheng offers to set up a date for Baorun and Fairy Princess, but things go awry, and result in an horrific act which the three will all pay for in some form or another throughout the remainder of the book. Understanding exactly the toll this incident has taken on all of these characters begins in part two, which focuses on Liu Sheng, and ends in part three with Fairy Princess (aka Miss Bai) taking center stage. As the blurb for the novel says, this "random act of violence sets off a spinning top, entwining the lives of three people."
I would be remiss here if I did not mention the Chinese legend of the mantis, the cicada and the yellow bird. Again from the blurb, the tale speaks of how the "mantis hunts the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind him." Not all is cut and dried and here -- the roles of predator and prey switch more than once. And as I noted earlier, China's past and present are examined here, as is the changing roles of its people as history moves forward, especially in terms of family and beliefs. There is also an ongoing theme of debt and repayment, but clearly at the center of it all the author examines what it means to lose one's soul. As one character notes, "not having a soul is just suffering..."
When I first started reading this novel, the writing at the beginning gave it a sort of YA feel, but the further I read the darker and more intense this story became, although it is tempered with bouts of occasional humor. Thinking caps need to be worn for this one and time for reflection should be allotted, as it is filled with metaphor and symbols with a side of magical realism; extrapolation is also advised. Even without spinning mental wheels and digging deeper though, the story will capture and captivate readers who enjoy modern Chinese literature.