Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, published by Corgi Books New York in 1984. I am reading it because I am scratchy, miserable, overworked and tired, and my household machines have undergone a Major Extinction Event, beginning with the toaster firing bread at the cat, through to the microwave, the vacuum cleaner (though that might have been the pigeon feathers) the television fading sadly way and my dearly loved old Mac dying slowly, starting with my emails, all of which are gone as if I had never had a friend in the world.
What a woman needs in those circumstances is Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was, which is the most engrossing secondary reality I have ever read, and I have been reading fantasy since I was eight. Earlier if you count fairy stories, which this is, sort of…
I have some expertise in Chinese history and poetry. I went to China in 1985, when they didn’t do Tourism. Hughart is an expert. His China sounds right. It smells right. It sounds right, with the bird-twittering of Mandarin. His characters are entrancing and his plotting is a wild, furious whirl of action. Here is his narrator.
‘My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of the Classic of Tea. Since I am the strongest of my father’s sons I am called Number Ten Ox.’
Number Ten Ox is guileless and sweet natured, and the man he hires in Peking to investigate how a plague has learned to count is the exact opposite; the ancient sage, Li Kao, and this is his reply to the commission.
‘My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character. Number Ten Ox, eh? Muscles are highly overrated, but yours may come in handy,’ he said. ‘We will have to hurry, and for a variety of reasons you may be required to twist someone’s head off…I would suggest that you take aim at your village and start running like hell,’ said the ancient sage.
From then on, Number Ten Ox hardly stops running. The slight flaw in Li Kao’s character means that Number Ten Ox meets such luminaries of the underworld as One Eyed Wong and his wife Fat Fu, who make the most venomous liquor in Peking, refreshed with crushed cockroaches. Poor Number Ten Ox embarks on a life of crime which takes him and the aged Li Kao through beautiful cities and gorgeous countrysides and continues with a thread of pure myth; the peasant girl and the Star Shepherd, the legend of the Bridge of Birds which carries the most beautiful girl in the world back to her heavenly lover.
Hughart never loses control of the multiple strings of his plot, weaving it all together into a fascinating, silken tapestry. Unique to this sort of fantasy, he is also witty and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. How could I have left re-reading this for so long?
Kerry Greenwood was born so long ago that the internet was called books. She has written sixty of them with such female heroes as Phryne Fisher, Corinna Chapman and Medea. She will do other surprising things in the future.
03 Dec 12 at 19:39
Don’t forget Bridge of Birds is also genuinely moving at times. I dare anyone to read the prayer of Miser Shen without a tear.