Zhou Dynasty, China
Written mostly in flashback, Ng’s lyrical debut is the story of Lao Tzu’s vibrant and turbulent life. In the beginning of the novel, Lao Tzu is an old man who is captured when he rides a water buffalo into a military camp. I didn’t know you could ride water buffalos, but that is beside the point. The captain of the camp is at first understandably untrusting because spies abound and take all manner of appearances in his experience. But upon questioning him in more depth, the captain soon realizes that the old man is actually who he claims to be - the renowned scholar Lao Tzu - and he quickly commands for a scribe to come and record his tale of escape from the royal Zhou palace. As it is eventually revealed, Lao Tzu and the captain’s tales are very closely linked, to the captain’s astonishment, proving to him that The Way has many wandering paths that diverge and intersect but all have a larger purpose in life.
Ng’s novel is a superbly written tale, full of intrigue and drama and rich with cultural narrative. All of the main characters are vivid and multidimensional, and even the secondary characters are distinct and memorable. The writing itself is lovely. There are so many turns of phrase throughout this novel which are simply pretty that I took quite a long time to read the novel as I spent a lot of time highlighting those passages and phrases. The philosophical discussions embedded within are welcome food for thought, and I learned a lot about Taoism. It piqued my interest and inspired me to go learn more about it. I think to say that a book made me want to learn something new is the highest praise I can give.
© Kristen McQuinn
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