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4 stars

*This book doesn’t rely very heavily on plot, but here’s a warning for potential spoilers just in case you mind*

This is a wonderful book which was captivating from start to finish. It has no real plot, instead just detailing the lives of three country girls who are trying to get by in the big city. It is wonderfully written, with perfectly-drawn characters and an absorbing insight into a culture quite unlike the one I was brought up in.

I know very little about China and so this book was a brilliant introduction to a fascinating and complicated society. Although I knew vaguely about the communist government (mostly just that it was there), I had no idea of its effects in the last century or so. I knew nothing of the Cultural Revolution, or of the practice of sending city children to live in the country, or of the travel restrictions placed on citizens, or just generally of how the countryside is still so archaic in its views and customs. Women are given away in arranged marriages, are shunned if they fail to produce any sons and are generally just seen as worthless.

The lives of the peasant girls in the novel are unrecognisable to me. They are seen as valueless on account of being female and most of them have had very little education, spending their lives doing field-work and preparing for wifehood. The three sisters’ move to the big city obviously provides a huge contrast and they each adapt to it in their own ways. Watching how the three sisters develop over the course of the book was brilliant and was mostly down to how beautifully-rendered the characters were, all of whom were individual and real and flawed. Three was clever and artistic, Six was educated and ambitious and Five was wonderful in so many ways. She couldn’t read or write, had been told all her life that she was stupid and not worth anything, and yet she thrives. She proves to be talented and intelligent in her own ways, as well as being thoughtful and kind and humble. Her love of life, excitement and naivety made me love her even more. I really wish the book had been longer just so I could see how she continues to flourish and improve.

In a nutshell, this book is a wonderfully warm portrait of three beautifully-rendered characters, as well as an insight into China’s culture, including its good points (such as its rich history in the arts) and its bad (such as the treatment of women). Truly a very good book.

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