The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa

Monday, August 3, 2009

Teaser: Just before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the early 1930s, a teenage girl is desperately trying to come into her own as she approaches adulthood. Life has great new things to offer her, but she can't seem to deny that all others that have left their childhood behind live in misery. She finds her once easy life crumbling apart and clears her head by playing Go.

A young Japanese man has just left his childhood home to join the Imperial Army. He finds himself detached from the world and surrounding by the horrors of combat. He is given just a brief glance into his old world when he begins a game of Go with a mysterious Chinese girl in the local square. She had no idea that he was just days away from, with his troop, charging a bloody path through her city.

Short Thought: Gritty account leading up into a huge event in Asian history and how it affected people from both sides of the conflict.

Expanded Thoughts: Be warned there may be minor spoilers in this section. I started writing it, and found it increasing difficult to discuss without revealing anything.

This novel was brilliant, but not for the light-hearted or those who wish to escape harsh realities. It held nothing back and made you react.

The story is told from two perspectives. First we are introduced to teenage girl going to school in Manchuria. She is a strange girl who instead of being obsessed with makeup and men loves and excels at the game of Go. Since she was a child, she could be found down in the public square besting experienced players. She frowns on the old Chinese traditions and receives a lot of crooked glances from her peers because of that.

As the story progresses, she begins to enter a little more into adulthood. She gets involved in her first relationship with an older college student, and learns the benefits and the woes that sharing your mind and body with someone brings. She becomes best friends with one of the girls at her school, and learns the blessings and worries that friends bring. All the blissful innocence of her previous life slowly fades, and she is left with a world with short lived joys and heart stopping tragedies as the situation in her country directly affects all the relationships that took her years to come into.

The second perspective in the story is that of a young Japanese soldier who leaves his mother's home to fight in the Imperial Army. He quickly experiences first hand the horrific traumas of the present society and those that war brings. He has no real purpose in life, and doesn't really expect his life to continue for very long. He drowns his troubles and questions in local women and prostitutes with whom he convinces himself to fall in and out of love. While camped outside side of Manchuria awaiting the order to charge a takeover, he hears of a place he can go undercover in the city to play Go a game that allows him to remember his simple life before the army. He begins a series of games against a mysterious Chinese girl who is one of the best go players that he has played against.

This novel deals with some huge taboo issues and portrays them in a way that you will not forget. With out giving too much away, here are some of the issues that I recall from the reading: arranged v. love marriages, abortion, speaking out against your government, prostitution, torture, suicide, selling your virginity, spousal abuse, pedophilia, man's claim over a women's body, and etc. As I said before, it doesn't hold back. It isn't a 'feel-good' novel, it is a 'micro' account of the impact of the period leading up to this bloody coup.

In closing, I was just amazed at how much happened in just 280 pages.

Additional Notes: This is an English translation of the original French text by Shan Sa. Translation was done by Adriana Hunter.

Additional Notes: This novel contains dark themes, violence, and sexual situations.

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