Review: The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Thingstenthousand

by John Spurling

Duckworth Publishers

My interest was piqued when, on a two week internship at Duckworth and Overlook Press, I heard the Managing Director call this book ‘exquisite’. He went on to say that whilst in hospital recovering from injury, this was the only book (the ONLY book!) that he read from cover to cover.

With that sort of testimonial from one of the Publishing Greats, how could I not begin to fixate on it? ‘Exquisite’? I’ve read a lot of classics, of course, books so well known in general that reading them is less discovering a new story than it is learning the lines that connect the dots, but I’ve never really thought of them as exquisite; language differences and the way the pacing pulls you along rarely allows you to savour the way Authors really craft their novels. In my normal reading I’m a fan of fast-moving, pacy books that I can lose myself in and (usually) suddenly find that I’ve finished them within a matter of hours.

I am, perhaps, a product of my times. Without getting too political or philosophical about it the fact is that I’ve grown up alongside ever faster technologies. The idea of waiting for a chicken breast to cook in the oven is difficult for me, and internet clothes shopping is for me, a lazy pastime in which I can zone out and flick through dresses on asos.co.uk. (This is a habit that I am trying to break, as I am now not in quite so secure a financial situation as I once was!)

My point is, that although this is the book I was most excited about reading in my collection, I was also a bit hesitant. My expectations were high, and I’d enjoyed Tan Twang Eng’s THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS, which can be compared to this book if only based on their both being set in East Asia during times of hardship and turmoil, so I should enjoy this one too, right?

Except that I can’t recall much of that book, shortlisted for the Man Booker as it was, I’m not even sure if I finished it. I can’t find any indication of a bookmark, but I don’t remember the end, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell you where I finished reading, or indeed much beyond some vague beginnings of the story.

I suppose I needn’t have worried, as these two books are indeed very different. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is set (mostly) shortly after World War 2, whereas THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is set mostly during the last generation of the Yuan Dynasty, which started in 1260 and ended in 1368.

I know nothing of Chinese history, beyond what little can be gleaned from Disney’s MULAN and, later, the MULAN film that has Jackie Chan’s son in it. Luckily it is all perfectly illustrated and described for me through the eyes of Wang Meng, the man who would later be renowned as one of the ‘Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty’, but at the time of the novel was little more than a low level bureaucrat with little interest in much beyond painting.
We are first introduced to Wang Meng in prison, at seventy eight years old, seething at the ridiculous nature of his imprisonment. ‘for going to see a private art collection’ he writes, addressing the reader directly. Given time to dwell on little but his life, he resolves to document his life in the third person, ‘to experience it as a whole, as space, and perhaps perceive its pattern for the first time.’

I’m not a fan of quoting to much in reviews, but with the meandering, luxurious way that Spurling has created this life for us to experience it seems crude not to give such a novel a regard almost reverent when discussing it.

Because that’s what this book is. A luxurious, elegant, exquisite novel that feels as though you’re reading Wang Meng’s paintings as they’re created, as though its been written by hand on silk with a calligraphy brush, and I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Part of the appeal is undeniably down to the character Spurling has created in Wang Meng, a low level bureaucrat from an impressive family with no ambition, who in the first chapter loses a ring given to him by his grandfather, a famous artist and politician who worked under the Mongolian led Yuan Dynasty in its early years.

Wang’s such a wonderfully intricate person, that it almost seems disrespectful to call him a character. He’s so delightfully ordinary in that he dithers between sides in war, between the countryside and the city, and between his life as a husband and as a solitary man who prefers the company of his faithful servant, Deng.

There are no harsh descriptions of Wang, he is not introduced to us. There is no summing up of his temperament, or his desires, as he doesn’t seem to know them himself. We get to know him slowly, through his actions, his contemplations, his kindness, determination and his nervousness. He has no problem asserting himself at times, and then in seemingly similar situations dithers and meanders around the conversation to avoid disagreement.

Everything about him is a contradiction, and we truly feel led by his hand through the novel as no other characters are treated quite the same way. We get first impressions of his friend and peer Ni Zan, also historically one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, and of the rebel leader the White Tigress. We see all the other characters through Wang’s eyes, through his first meetings with them and how he considers their virtues and their faults.
This is one of those books that is so wholly immersive that you can’t read it in one sitting.

Each chapter tells a different story from Wang’s life, and the threads that tie them together are subtle, then stronger and more obvious towards the end. The way Wang describes a simple painting can take up a whole page of text, but while that sounds daunting it is really a rare pleasure to read a passage so devoted to describing one thing, but in a way that feels so natural. Before I ever googled the work of either Wang Meng, Ni Zan or even the old master whose painting is viewed at a party, Huang Gongwang, I had such a clear image in my head, such intimacy with their paintings that it felt almost spiritual seeing them on my computer screen. Artists so long dead, revived for fiction in Spurling’s novel.

Again, the only word I can think of is exquisite.

You get a little thrill every time the writer refers to ‘the so-called “ten thousand things” that make up the world’ in his writing, either when he first mentions it writing about his contemplations in a prison cell, or any time his muses over his place in them whilst going through his own past.

The tumultuous times between Dynasties, plagued by civil war and unrest, is all told to us through Wang Meng. He is involved in but deliberately distant from the high stakes game of choosing who to support, and indeed has ties to almost all of the different factions fighting each other. The best description is perhaps from Wang himself, when talking to a monk novice who has ascended to extraordinary heights:

‘“We should be like water.” said Wang, “finding our own level, accepting our own nature and our part in nature, as we observe and contemplate the ten thousand things and move amongst them, gaining knowledge of ourselves as we gain more knowledge of them, penetrating the mystery of the ordinary. This is what the philosopher Zhang Zhou called ‘riding on the normality of the universe’.”’

Although maybe this isn’t quite true, Wang is trying so hard to be a passive non-force in this passage, trying to avoid confrontation or choosing a side that I’m not sure this is the best way to describe him at all.

At the risk of over-indulging myself with quotes, I’ll resolve that this be the last.

‘“I am by nature detached,” said Ni. “Always have been, cannot be otherwise. You are the opposite, by nature attached. Your mountains [in your paintings] are right in your face, your trees are tangible, your pictures are full of houses and people. I like your pictures so much because I can have all that attachment without having to scramble up the cliffs or bump into the trees or get involved with the people. You like mine because you think you’d really prefer to be detached. And yes, in a way you are detached and I am attached- … So, how real are these distinctions we make?”’

Truth be told, I finished this book a couple of hours ago. I have so much to say but it feels like I’d be doing any readers of this a disservice by delving any deeper into it, as all I’d be doing is sorting it out for myself, writing down my thoughts and feelings as I let it sink in.
I even still have trouble calling it Spurling’s book. It feels so much Wang Meng’s that I’m having difficulty associating this novel with the hand of a London playwright, penned only recently.

The end of this book is remarkably well done too, and I finished it with a hollow feeling in my stomach that you only get when you finish a story that is going to stay with you for a very long time. Because it will, I can promise you that.

This book will stay with you for such a very long time.

It’s simply exquisite.

THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is released in January 2014 by Duckworth Publishers.

Rae Carson- Crown of Embers

Being sick is a wonderful thing.

I mean, well it isn’t, but when you’re lying in bed cuddling up to a bucket you do find that you have the opportunity to get some proper reading done. Those of you who remember me will know I am now in full time employment after graduating (yay!) and living in London (double yay!) so I’ll admit that I’ve been holding off on reading this book for two reasons.

1- When I read Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns I stayed up all night and read it in one sitting. I slept the next day. (see previous review)

2- The only way I could get away with doing the above a second time for the second book in the series would be if I had a free weekend (which I don’t) or was on my deathbed with nothing else to do. (a-ha)

So yesterday I finally got around to reading  the second book in Rae Carson’s trilogy (released this year, published by Gollancz) and I started with stupidly high hopes, hopes so high that nothing could possibly meet up to my expectations.

But Rae Carson is an amazing writer, and her second novel in theFire and Thorns trilogy matches up incredibly with her first. Having become a young Widow and Queen, Elisa is growing increasingly frustrated with the politics of her new home; the people hail her as a hero- so long as taxes stay low, and the other members of her government dismiss her as a child and don’t trust her. The only people around her who she can trust are her two ladies-in-waiting, Mara and Ximena, her stepson Prince Rosario and the Commander of her Royal Guard, Hector.

Oh, Hector. I’ve loved you since the very first book.

Not only is Elisa’s Quorum/Government doing their best to ignore her, but they’re also trying to marry her off (again). The country is unsettled and Elisa has yet to prove herself as more than a war hero, so a husband will give her the ‘stability’ she needs. Enter the dashing Conde Tristan from the Southern Territories. He’s intelligent, brave, and seems a perfect match as long as you don’t take into account that Elisa doesn’t love him… but no one is as they appear to be, and his own secret is one that has to come out sooner or later.

Not only that, but it appears Elisa didn’t quite manage to totally defeat the Invierne people in the last book, and after a rather public demonstration that involves a lot of fire, her position is weakened further by their bid to kidnap her.

And as if that wasn’t enough for the seventeen year old Queen/Widow/Mother/War Hero to be dealing with, there have also been several attempts on her life, which means she has more enemies than even Hector suspected. It might be time to start choosing some unlikely allies and keeping old friends at a more wary distance.

Everything about this story is a step up from the first; The politics are more secretive, Elisa’s enemies are more mysterious and more numerous, and the romance is more mature, more slow burning. I had a moment of horror before I began reading, wondering if, as sequels can do, this book would disappoint me, but it’s everything I hoped for and more; the plot is a continuation of the same story, but there’s new elements being introduced too. Elisa still makes mistakes, she still trusts the wrong people and still does the wrong things, but by the time this book ends she’s found her footing a little more, and she’s still that brilliant blend of surly teenager and brave young hero that made us love her in Girl of Fire and Thorns.

And now I’ve realised that the Final installment, The Bitter Kingdom, won’t be released until next year. That can’t be true. My heart won’t take it…

Fire and Thorns – by Rae Carson

I have finished with university, almost definitely for good, and I’m very very conscious of the fact that I’ve written… almost no reviews for Un:Bound since starting uni almost three years ago. I’ve certainly not written any since the big move to the new site.

For reasons best left to the privacy of my twitter account (@katheubeck) I am under house arrest at the moment and since I’m at my parent’s house, that means I’m stuck in a village with just three streets and no Co-op.

My first real foray to proper book-reading has started with Rae Carson’s debut novel, “Fire and Thorns”, published by Gollancz. It follows the story of young princess Elisa, who has grown up babied, fat and lazy. Even though she bears the Godstone, a sign that God has chosen her for a life of heroism, she has never pursued adventure and was encouraged to stay out of harms way.

On her sixteenth birthday, she’s married off to the handsome king of a huge nearby country, but finds that although she has been married off as part of a treaty, the king keeps their marriage secret, and instead openly courts the beautiful Condesa Arina. Spurred by her own thirst for knowledge, and suspicions that there is more to the legend of the Godstone than she knows, Elisa finds herself drawn further and further into an age-long war she didn’t even know was happening, a war that she is a part of whether she likes it or not.

The book is split into three parts, each following a different ‘role’ of Elisa’s as her journey goes on. In part 1, she is the intelligent but lazy scholar, trying to make the best of a bad situation. She tries to prove that she’s capable of being a Queen to her new husband whilst learning as much about the Godstone as possible… until she’s kidnapped.

Part 2 follows her survival in the desert, and the realization of her own significance as the war rages on. She becomes a tactician, and a survivor.

In the third and final part of the book, Elisa really comes into her own. She stops relying on others to carry her through, and becomes a leader, a figurehead of war.

The copy I have is an uncorrected Manuscript proof which I was given as an Un:Bound reviewer at some point last year. I need to say a big SORRY to my boss/benefactor/dictator/religious leader at Un:Bound that it took me so long to get this review done but… you know… the final year of university is supposed to be time-consuming. At least other people tell me this.

Now before I say anything else about whether I enjoyed the book or not, I want to be absolutely clear. I started reading at about midnight for a bit of a wind-down before bed. I didn’t stop reading until I finished the book at 4.30 the next morning.

I absolutely loved it, but I was so engrossed in it that I didn’t realize how MUCH I loved it until I reached the end and realized there were birds singing outside. The characters that I got to know, and their exploits that I was so much a part of took such hold of me that I wasn’t even able to THINK about the real world (by which I mean the internet) until about ten minutes after I finished the book and had let it all sink in.

In many ways this is aquite traditional coming-of-age story; a teenager is pushed from the nest and learns to fly alone, learning more about their true identity along the way. Yes, we know that story, it’s every teenage fantasy book that is already on our shelves. Except for one or two…

But the wonderful thing about this book is that it takes everything that makes those books wonderful and introduces that little bit more. Elisa doesn’t just strike out on her own; she builds on the advice others give her, she befriends those who have wronged her, she is completely aware of her own limitations and knows when she needs others around her. Elisa starts the story as a clever but lonely girl whose only friends are the two handmaidens her father pays to keep her safe. She ends the book respected, wise and loved.

As a fantasy novel with a female protagonist, told in the first person and some feminist elements, I’ll admit “Fire and Thorns” might struggle with some within the male demographic, but the sheer depth of the characters we meet will enthrall anyone who reads it, of any age or gender. Carson’s realistic but readable approach to war and politics, both at the front lines and within the government, takes the perspective of a sixteen year old and brings you into the adventure with remarkable skill.

I’m told that this is the first installment of a trilogy and I really really hope I can get my hands on the next book as soon as possible, preferably before I’m forced to storm Gollancz and take Rae Carson hostage as my own personal book-writer.

Do the right thing, Rae. Give it to me now for the good of mankind.