The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian
29th Jan 2013
The novel follows her Snow and Raven (yet to be translated into English), as well as numerous short stories that have made Chi the only author to have won China’s prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize three times.
The novel is written in the voice of an unnamed narrator looking back over her ninety years of life as part of the Evenki, a nomadic people that have long inhabited the mountainous wilds where now north western China meets Russia.
The book begins in the present day, where modernisation has taken its toll on the Evenki way of life. The narrator’s family leave behind their tent-like shirangju in favour of walled homes in the towns – taking their reluctant herds of reindeer with them.
Chi builds a whole history around the family of her narrator and traces the events of their lives through her eyes, jumping around through time in order to reveal new nuggets of information that explain events.
Chi's intimate knowledge and affection for the region of her birth allows the author throws light on a culture that doesn’t, and due to political changes, cannot, come out of its wildernesses Tales of hardship and struggle prevail, lending the book a melancholy air which emphasises the loss felt by the aged storyteller. In her youth the narrator is a sharp and challenging character who questions the traditions that she has inherited through her birth and breaks rules.
This carries an irony because when she reaches her old age it’s that very way of life that she stubbornly holds on to: “the rain and snow” she says “have weathered me, and I too have weathered them.”
Whilst family history and all its stories and relationships are in the foreground, they are set against a backdrop of the political changes that have come about over the course of the narrator’s life, as first Russian revolutionaries, then Japanese Imperialists and finally the Chinese cultural revolution seek to control their lands.
Chi’s detailed depiction of Evenki traditions is insightful and interesting. The writing is full of wild, unkempt imagery that conjures up the breezes and thunderstorms of the mountains where these tribes have long roamed.
Her intimate knowledge and affection for the region of her birth allows the author throws light on a culture that doesn’t, and due to political changes, cannot, come out of its wildernesses – even while its existence there is threatened.
The Last Quarter of the Moon was published by Harvill Secker on 17th January and is available in hardback from Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop, priced at £14.99. A Kindle version is also available, priced at £10.79.
Recommended for: Those interested in gaining a deep insight into a different culture, or those who enjoy family histories told over several generations.
Other recommended reading: Arundhuti Roy’s beautifully written The God of Small Things also tells the compelling story of a family woven around broader social and political themes – all crafted into her elegant prose.