Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, “The Four Books” by Yan Lianke was the set book for one of my book clubs a couple of months ago. I was looking forward to reading this book because as I’ve mentioned in other reviews this year, I’m trying to read more diversely and I’ve been really enjoying Chinese literature. When it came to buy a copy of “The Four Books”, I actually had a bit of trouble finding this book to begin with. I looked in a number of shops but couldn’t find in anywhere. Then after the shortlist was announced, it magically appeared in one of my local bookshop chains and I was able to pick it up.
The best way I’ve heard “The Four Books” described is like “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” meets “Catch-22”. Set in a re-education camp in China during the great leap forward, this novel is about the intellectuals who have been sent there. The intellectuals are known only by their professions: such as the Author, the Musician, the Scholar, the Theologian. The camp is ruled by the Child, who controls the intellectuals with a system of red blossoms in exchange for good behaviour and reporting the actions of others. As the work gets more and more intensive, famine sets in and the detainees at the ninety-ninth district begins to lose morale.
The narrative structure of this book is really interesting. The story is pieced together from four books, each with a different unique perspective, sometimes overlapping and sometimes with gaps. The novel defies being boxed into any one genre. Part historical fiction, part magic realism and part horror, “The Four Books” is an eye-opening read. This book is as vibrant as it is stark, and the surreal storytelling is juxtaposed with the intense subject-matter.
If you’re looking for an excellent piece of literature, I would highly recommend this book. Lianke is an extremely skilled writer and this is a book that will stay with you long after you’ve read it. Even though it’s been a couple of months since I read it, I still find myself daydreaming about impossible wheat fields and red blossoms.