In my explorations of go and literature, I decided to read the Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa translated from Chinese to English by Adriana Hunter. The book is a mishmash, part historical, part coming of age, part women’s fiction, all with the flavor of Go. The historical backdrop of Japanese invasion of Manchuria was fascinating. I’m largely ignorant of that era, so that definitely held my interest. The book features first person narratives of a Chinese teenage girl and a Japanese soldier. They don’t meet till the halfway through the book to play a go game. Like a go game, the two characters circle each other, play move for move, alternate the viewpoints until the cataclysmic conclusion.
On the prose side, the writing is immersive, poetic and lyrical, certainly measured and restrained. But it wasn’t as impressive as I hoped from reading all the rave reviews, perhaps because there wasn’t any particular imagery that made my mind sing.
Go isn’t notable for female players, and in that sense, the viewpoint of a female go player is unique and inherently curious. However this is also a teenage viewpoint, Chinese Style, and so the adolescent angst , love fumblings, and the hackneyed criticisms of women’s lives in 1930’s China, I found wanting. Her first love trepidations curiously felt sterile and uninvolving and rather painful in its awkwardness.
On the other side, the male voice was just as poetic as the girl’s voice, and that felt false. In between fighting, the soldier spent his days, visiting prostitutes, thinking of visiting prostitutes and then offer a few tired bits on Japanese imperialism and Chinese inferiority. But ultimately, his character was lacking gravitas and courage so much so that when the book vroomed to the shocking conclusion, I was distinctly underwhelmed.
I hoped for more go musings, more go ideas, more go something, but the sentimental peregrinations colored everything with such dullness. Characters were too wrapped up in themselves that none of them tried to go beyond themselves and try to do something heroic. Chaos and tragedies were rumbling around them, and yet they were all so small-minded.
On a positive note, the book is easy to read. I’d give it a go, if you’re especially interested in the 1930’s China from a female perspective.