The Girl Who Played Go

There are some books that are just screaming to be reviewed, and others that sit there quietly but have kind of needled their way under your skin and won’t let you forget it – until you actually review it that is.

And that’s the case with Shan Sa’s The Girl Who Played Go. It’s been on my mind these past few weeks since I finished reading it. Perhaps because it’s one of those kind of quiet books. It’s very short chapters disorientated me at the beginning, but it was only later that I thought of it as a game of go. I’m not all that familiar with go or weiqi (围棋) in Chinese (and here’s the wikipedia entry if you’d like to know more), but I did know that it begins with a blank board, with the two players taking turns to place a stone (either black or white, depending on which they’ve chosen – black goes first).

The chapters in the book alternate between the stories of a teenaged Chinese girl who lives in Manchuria and a Japanese soldier who eventually gets posted there. Their lives are separate at first, with the girl describing her everyday life with her family and friends, and the Japanese soldier with his fellow soldiers fighting against the Chinese as he makes his way towards Manchuria, which the Japanese occupy in this 1930s setting. The story takes its time to come together But later, as they begin to play go together in the Square of a Thousand Winds, their lives come together as they manoeuvre their black and white armies onto the playing field, echoing the conflict between Japan and China.

This story is carefully told and quite beautifully written. It is a story that shouldn’t – and can’t – be sped through. An elegant and touching read.

Shan Sa’s other books (that have been translated into English from French):
Empress: A Novel
Alexander and Alestria: A Novel

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