Book Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong

It’s disheartening to see negative reviews of this book almost everywhere I look. The main problems, I suspect, are that this retelling of a Chinese myth is not quite the fairy tale you’d expect and that it is not quite Su Tong’s usual fare. (And admittedly the translation could be better). If you know what you’re getting into, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The myth is that Binu’s husband is taken to work on the Great Wall, but as winter comes around, she starts to worry that he will freeze to death since he doesn’t have a coat. Using this premise, Su Tong fashions a story set in a world permeated with magical realism: a woman is reincarnated as a frog, in Binu’s home village, people are not allowed to cry and to get around this citizens have learned to cry from their breasts, their hands, etc. And that’s just scratching the surface.

But when it comes to fairy tales, this is far from Disney and even harsher than the original Brothers Grimm tales.

The most common complaint is just how awful the characters are to each other and how whiny and useless Binu can come across, but that’s just typical misanthropic Su Tong. If you like happy stories stay far away from this. The way I saw it, in a world as cruel and unyielding as the one Su Tong presents, a woman as optimistic as Binu must be crazy, and that’s exactly how she comes across.

I would not recommend anyone start here with Su Tong. The translation could be better and the subject matter is unusual for him. But he’s a writer most people (those that can get over not necessarily sympathizing with a character) should check out (start with the collection of novellas, Raise the Red Lantern), and this is definitely a worthy edition to his body of work.

(As a side note, I read that there was such a bustle to get Su Tong’s book, The Boat to Redemption, out in English that the translator used an earlier draft, resulting in an inferior work. Apparently this book was released to wide acclaim in China and became a best-seller, so I’m curious if something similar happened here. Either way, however, it’s a good read.)


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