Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart
Synopsis: A comedic fable-style story wherein a smart-ass Holmes-type character and his burly sidekick (our narrator) have crazy adventures while incidentally freeing a fairytale China from a bloodthirsty tyrant.
Book Review: I’m like the 1000th person to review this novel, so y’all have probably heard this before. But I’ll add my opinions to the mix, in case that tips the scales for anyone. After all, I don’t recall who finally tipped me into the “well, guess I gotta read this” camp, but it certainly wasn’t anyone well known, it was just an acquaintance whose opinion I respect.
This is an utterly delightful tale. It’s a black comedy, full of random murder and awfulness, but played with a slapstick sensibility that honestly makes you laugh. Everything in it is drawn with the super-saturated colors and jovial emotions of a fairy tale. Fun characters, over-the-top plot and coincidences, and really beautiful writing combine to make this a really fun read.
A lot of the fun comes from the somewhat absurd gambits that our Sherlock character engineers. If you like the clever little traps that Sherlock sets up, or deductions he waltz through, you’ll really enjoy the schemes Master Li cooks up. Tons of supporting characters keep reappearing in the most hilarious ways, and by the end of the book a number of things click together in this neat puzzle-resolution that’s really beautiful to read.
As it is written in fable-style, though, it’s not for everyone. It is over the top. It has the cyclical structure that fairytales love, repeating certain actions a number of times (well, three times, because fairytales love threes) with minor variations. But you know going into the same scene the 2nd or 3rd time basically how it’ll work out. This relieves the tension and lets you jaunt through the scene, but it also means there isn’t really much tension in much of the novel. This sort of story is read for the sparkle, rather than the immersion.
Two things kinda bothered me too. The first is that basically every problem humanity faces (aside from the evil tyrant himself) boils down to “Women Are The Root Of All Our Woes.” Either mean women who exploit men’s weakness for the opposite gender to dominate them, or pretty-but-vapid women who unknowingly drive men to do crazy things due to their inability to make rational decisions in the face of boobs. Most of the world’s problems would be gone if there just weren’t all these darn women around! I realize the whole story is a silly comedy, but “Men are dumb cuz of penis, and women all manipulate this whether knowingly or not” is a plot/joke that irks me personally.
The second thing is that it’s very deathist in the end. The tyrant is evil because he wants immortality. Many of the supporting characters have tragic deaths in their backstory, and at the end of the book quite a few of them are finally “reunited” with their dead loved ones. By dying. And we’re shown that it’s so great and wonderful that these nice people are dead now! They’re so much better off dead! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was dead? And yeah, ok, it’s a fantasy novel that has a real afterlife, so death really is just going on to a cooler, better life. But A – why the hell were our protagonists going to such lengths to STOP people from dying if death is so great, (the primary quest is finding a cure to a plague that’s killing their village’s children); and B – I just personally really hate deathist themes, even in fantasy works with real afterlives, because fuck death, Death Is Bad.
Still, the novel really IS fantastic. It’s whimsical and fun and well-written, and it’s worth reading it anyway, despite the low-level misogyny/misandry (misanthropy?) and deathism. I know I made it sound bad in those last two paragraphs, but this is delightful throughout much of the story, and it is both a quick and easy read. You’ll laugh, and now and then you’ll be touched. Highly Recommended.
Book Club Review: In addition to all the fun that can be had in reading this book, and in sharing things that people really loved, there can be a lot of good conversation about this books flaws too. The misanthropy/deathism can spark conversation. Two people in our book club did not care for the fairytale stylings at all, and that sparked discussion on the difference between fairytale stories and modern story telling, and the pros and cons of each, and so forth. There’s no wrong opinion here, just varying tastes, and the exploration of them. The conversation was interesting.
Aaaaaaand of course there was the cultural appropriation conversation as well. Bridge of Birds draws from a lot of traditional Chinese tales and cultural background. Enough so that I’ve heard someone say that as much as one likes the story, that enjoyment is significantly leveled up by having deep Chinese cultural knowledge. It’d be like reading a dark comedy based on western fairytales without having ever heard of Cinderella or Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood or King Arthur. It can still be a lot of fun if done well, but you’ll get so much more out of it if you are familiar with the background material.
But Barry Hughart is a white American, and for a couple readers in our group this brought up questions of authenticity immediately. Is this well-researched storytelling by someone who’s really dedicated themselves to getting this right? Or is it just someone grabbing stuff from Chinese culture they think is cool and throwing it in the book? And sadly, all any of us have to go on is what it vaguely “feels like” to us.
I remember hearing that Chinese readers/critics thought it was well done, but spending 15 minutes googling after the book club meeting didn’t return any results. I don’t remember where I heard the “it’s well done” claim from, so I don’t have any source to give. :/ This is doubly confounded by the fact that it’s a dark comedy which treats most things irreverently, and could be said to be lampooning certain common tropes. So…. how do we know if it’s “authentic” and “respectful” enough? And if it wasn’t very authentic, does that ruin it, despite it being a well-written comedy and a good story?
I obviously have my own opinion, which I figure is pretty clear by the way I slanted that last paragraph. But to clarify, I think most claims of cultural appropriation are self-important bullshit. Yet this is something I can respectfully discuss with my fellow book-clubbers, and that was also an interesting discussion to have.
So, in addition to being a fun and easy read, lots of good conversation. Recommended!