Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.

Raw, important, but disappointing

The Garlic Ballads - Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt

It feels wrong to give a Nobel prize-winner only 3*, but I didn't enjoy this enough to give it four.


It is based on a true incident in the 1980s (though life is so basic, it's a shock to realise how recent it is), when farmers rioted after the government refused to buy all the garlic it had told them to grow, because there of the resulting glut. I presume the individual characters are inventions, or composites.




Each chapter starts with a few lines of a ballad that outline the bare bones of the story, as sung by Zhang Kou, a blind minstrel.


The main text follows individual characters: how they became involved with the uprising, their relationships with each other, what happened afterwards etc. There are two main timelines, though it isn't always immediately obvious when some sections are set, which I found irritating. Another annoyance was a few passages that suddenly switched to first-person, in a somewhat jarring way.


The main characters are Gao Yang who has a blind daughter and newborn son, and Gao Ma, a younger (and single) man, along with Jinju and her mother, Fourth Aunt Fang.




Because it is describing a political injustice with devastating consequences, along with corrupt officials inclined to torture those beneath them, it is painfully graphic a lot of the time. The brutality of family and neighbours is almost as bad. Such incidents need to be documented, but it's hard to read, at times.


At first, the explicitness is more subtle, conjuring poverty in more subtle ways. For example, instead of saying that Gao Yang is too poor to buy new shoes, it says "Baked earth burned the soles of his feet; the intense heat made his eyes water. With the sun beating down on his bare back, he scraped caked-on dirt from his chest."


The visceral descriptions of pain, flesh and bodily fluids that follow are relentless, although they are counterbalanced with poetic descriptions of plants, birds, and landscapes. At times, the link is explicit, as when one captive "took a last look at the poplar tree where he had been [agonisingly] shackled, and actually felt a tinge of nostalgia." Another time, colourful parakeets are bloodily slaughtered, "clouds of living colour that whirled above... until, wing-weary, they fell like stones, thudding like heavy rain drops".




Despite all the blood, pus and urine, tears are probably more important, especially the desperate desire not to shed them (and to deny it when doing so). A typical refrain is "Gao Yang's eyes were awash with tears. 'I'm not crying', he reassured himself".


There are also certain plants and crops that are mentioned in ways that makes me think they contain additional associations that I am unaware of, principally indigo, jute and corn. (The garlic is more obvious.)


It is all so painfully real, a fleeting mention of ghosts - as if they are entirely real - comes as an anachronistic shock.


Of course, the main theme is about the incompetence and corruption of government, and how it is the peasant farmers who suffer. Standing up for what is right is very dangerous. I should probably state that Mo Yan is a pen name that means "don't speak" in Chinese.




The ending was incomplete for many characters (which I don't mind), but the final scene felt forced and clichéd.




  • "Stars shone brightly in the deep, dark, downy-soft canopy of heaven, beneath which cornstalks, straining to grow tall, stretched and rustled."
  • "The two strings sing out with a muffled scratchiness slowly rounding out to crisp, mellow notes that tightened around his listeners' eager hearts."
  • "I am lying in the cornfields gazing at clouds being carved up by sharp-edged leaves above me... White sap beads up and dangles from downy filaments, reluctant to fall earthward, like the tears on her lashes."
  • "Her feelings for her brother matched her feel for his game leg: pity on occasion, disgust the rest of the time. Pity and disgust, an emotional conflict that entangled her."
  • A neglected cornfield "protested uneasily in the breeze: withered tassels and stalks retaining barely a trace of moisture no longer enjoyed the resiliancy of their youth, when they had been bent before the wind, their emerald leaves fluttering gracefully like ribbons of satin with each gust to form cool green waves; just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes, for now the wind made the stalks shudder as they stood tall and rigid, their once graceful movements just a memory."
  • In a society where you're told what to believe, lack of direction is troubling: "not knowing what thoughts she should force into the emptiness of her mind".
  • In prison, "benches painted an unknowable colour".
  • "The dew-laden silkworm droppings falling on his legs seemed to him to be the excrement of heavenly constellations."
  • When desperately thirsty and finally getting water, "he heard the crackling sounds of bone-dry organs being irrigated."
  • "crinkled skin - a face that looked lie a soybean soaked in water, then set out to dry."
  • "He could scarcely believe that in the space of twenty-four hours a vigorous man like him had been turned into a worthless, panting shell of a human being."
  • In court, he "understood the presiding judge's words but little of his meaning... he sensed vaguely that the events being chronicled had little to do with him" - although of course the did (allegedly).

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China MiƩville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake