In war-torn Manchuria of the 1930s, two lives briefly find peace over a game of go in Shan Sa's third novel, The Girl Who Played Go (translated by Adriana Hunter). The unnamed characters, a Japanese soldier stationed in China and a 16-year-old Manchurian girl, narrate their stories in alternating first-person chapters. For the girl, the struggles of Independent Manchuria take a back seat to her discovery of love and the awakening of her sexuality. For the soldier, his idealized dreams of samurai honor and imperial conquest are slowly displaced by homesickness, troubled recollections of his earthquake-torn youth, and remorse over a lost love. But the solitary concerns of each character are eventually submerged by the tides of war. The girl's first lover, Min, is a revolutionary. His ardor for his virgin conquest is matched by a doomed patriotism. Simultaneously, the soldier comes to relish the girl's home town, Thousand Winds, in Southern Manchuria, and becomes distrustful of his own nationalism. His daily games of go with the young female stranger awaken a new passion in him that becomes entwined with admiration for her aggressive play.
As they hardly speak, the soldier and the girl's views of each other remain clouded in Sa's technically facile narrative maneuvers. Where the soldier sees love, the girls sees escape. By maintaining the first person, Sa (winner of the French Prix Goncourt du Premier) leads the reader not only to experience the Japanese and Manchurian perspectives of the occupation, but also she offers glimpses into the deep failure inherent in cross-cultural and cross-generational communication. Couple with the rich historical detail, Sa's narrative games reward close reading amidst the briskly paced spiral into tragedy.
Loved this book. Very compelling reading. Could not put it down. Enjoyed the way the story was written and the coming together of two lives/destiny.
Set in 1930s Manchuria propped up by the Japanese, The Girl who Played Go is a work of historical fiction set in a time with lots of dramatic potential. Unfortunately, Beijing-born writer Shan Sa failed to make the historical moment come alive in this sparse, austere tale of love and war. Originally written in French, the story is told in short, alternating chapters by two unnamed first-person narrators: the first is the title character, a teenager from an educated family on the cusp of womanhood, and her opponent at go, a Japanese military officer posing as a civilian. Their paths cross in the square where people gather to play go, and their interaction is mainly through the black and white pieces in this ancient game of strategy. However, they both feel like unrealistic stock characters with very predicable passions. While some might find the prose lyrical, dream-like yet precise, I thought most of the story, which includes quite a bit of sex and some graphically violent scenes, was told instead of shown. I was disappointed.