Monday, May 9, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on May 5, 2011
Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian

Song of the Silk Road By Mingmei Yip

When I sat down with Mingmei Yip’s Song of the Silk Road, I was prepared for an elegant novel filled with richly evocative description of China’s rural landscapes and cultures. This was based on book blurbs and the cover of the book, which features a serene looking young woman and some lovely cherry blossoms. What’s that they say about not judging a book by its cover? Yeah, that’s right. Over here, where I’m sitting - librarian FAIL, live and in colour. This isn’t to say the book isn’t lovely, well-written and breathtaking, but it’s also much more.

Hong Kong-born Lily Lin is an aspiring author living off waitressing and the goodwill of her married lover in New York City, when she receives news that an unknown aunt wishes to leave her an inheritance of $3 million. Lily is ecstatic and can hardly wait to collect the money. Except, she must: Dear aunt Mindy has stipulated that Lily must travel China’s treacherous Silk Road and complete a series of extremely bizarre tasks (including - but happily not limited to - the minor destruction of national treasures and the seduction of a particular monk) if she wants to receive the full inheritance. With little to hold her back, Lily decides to embark on the journey.

What follows is an absolute romp through the China guidebooks don’t cover. Told in vivid first-person language - with witty chapter titles and a tongue-in-cheek east-meets-west style – Yip’s writing brings a charmingly bitter post-colonial edge to Lily’s morally complex character. The descriptions of desert and mountain landscapes are breath-taking, and so are her colourful evocations of downscale, rural Chinese hotels and hospitals, albeit for different reasons. If you are the sort of person who reads a book for the calibre of the writing, or to immerse yourself in the culture, food and space of another land, you should pick up this book.

More of a plot person? Don’t worry, there’s lots for you, too. Soon after arriving in China, Lily meets a sad, sweet American named Alex. Although much younger than Lily, he falls quickly and inconveniently in love with her. Desiring a journey of adventure and self-discovery, she tries to shake him, but he is determined to keep her safe through China’s dangerous backcountry. Through the Taklamakan desert and into the mountains, Lily meets many incredible characters, from a mysterious Uyghur apothecary whose tragic story is the stuff of myths, to a blind Taoist monk with sharp second sight and a snappy, sarcastic sidekick. These characters - and her aunt’s improbable list of tasks - are so tightly interwoven with the surprise ending, that unveiling details comes dangerously close to spoiler territory. This is an adventure story in the best sense, with humour, romance, suspense and tragedy. Pour yourself something yummy and settle in; once you get started on Song of the Silk Road, you’re not going anywhere for a good while.

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