Monday, April 5, 2010

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Some books are good. Some books are special. Some books, like Bridge of Birds, end with the reader feeling like they have been given a precious gift.

My history with Bridge of Birds goes back a long, long way. Something like ten years, really, to when I was first playing around on this really cool bookstore site called Amazon. This book caught my attention somehow, and I thought it looked fascinating, but I never quite got around to ordering it. It was the first book on my wishlist, though. Years have gone by, and Bridge of Birds has remained on my reading periphery, patiently waiting for me to finally come across a copy and open it. And then about two weeks ago I was feeling like something different, something new. And this book took that moment to strike. "What about me?" it asked, politely. I plugged the title into the library OPAC, and there it was. There's only one copy in the whole system, but I brought it home with me, then sat and stared at it for a couple of days. I've always avoided reviews of this book, and I very deliberately did not read the jacket summary -- I didn't want to spoil anything for myself. All I knew about it was that there was a character named Number Ten Ox and a bridge involved. One might think with all this buildup, the years of anticipation, that I might have found this book to be a disappointment. I am so happy to report that it was not.

It was different, though. I had no expectations other than that it was set in Ancient China, and that it was a fantasy. And, thanks to Aarti, I suspected that Number Ten Ox might be a really wonderful character. I didn't know anything about any of the other characters or the structure of the story. I'm not used to reading like that; I usually have a pretty good grasp of what's about to happen and who the main characters are. Going into this pretty much blind was interesting, and because the rhythm of the writing was unusual and the setting was so unfamiliar on the surface, and I kept getting distracted by wondering how familiar with Chinese history Hughart is, because I'm certainly not, so sifting pure imagination from actual Chinese mythology isn't something I'm able to do.

After a while this all ceased to matter as I got tangled in a beautiful, precise web. I don't know how much I want to say as a summary; perhaps it will suffice to say that there is indeed a wonderful character named Number Ten Ox, an even better one (sorry Aarti!) named Li Kao who has a slight flaw in his character, fairytales and labyrinths, children in danger and ghost stories. It is a mystery, and it is a fantasy, and it's an adventure and a caper, too. For the most part it's written wonderfully, with a small bit of clumsiness here or there -- I make note of it only because it does stick out when the usually subtle foreshadowing slips, since that's such a rare case. Most of the time the writing is clever, light and often funny, and feels even more clever in retrospect.

I need to read it over again, because it is so precise. It's a little circular, coming back on itself in both action and even phrasing, such that the reader will occasionally think, I've been here before. And they will probably be right. Having been to the end and seen the knots undone now, I want to read it over to understand better, to see what I missed, and to enjoy again the careful prose and detail, and gentle humour. It's a children's story for adults, and it reflects on the power of stories, and the truths hidden in fictions and games, which is a favourite theme of mine.

I get the feeling this isn't much of a review, and I'm not quite sure how to fix it. I just think that this is a book that one should experience on one's own. Aarti has a great review as well as a very persuasive perspective on why you should read this book. Give yourself some time to sink into it, because if you are like me it will take a little while (or it might not; might just have been me freaking myself out over finally reading it after all this time) and let the story take you where it will. And be prepared that somewhere toward the ending of the book, it will reach up and grab you and not let you go until the last page is done and you'll discover not only have you stopped breathing properly, but your eyes might just be the tiniest bit damp.


Aarti said...

YAY!! I'm so glad you read and enjoyed this one. I shivered upon reading your first paragraph- that's how I felt, too. In fact, I felt that so much that I just spent a LOT of money on one of the sequels (sadly, not the DIRECT sequel, but the second sequel, Eight Skilled Gentlemen).

And yes, I love Li Kao, too. There is no flaw, as far as I'm concerned ;-)

GREAT review! I wish we could jump up and down and squeal about this book together!

Unknown said...

*does some cyber-squealing and -jumping*

It really was that good. I have to keep an eye out for copies of this and the sequels, because I'm so worried that eventually my library will weed this copy out and then I'll be stuck. And that would be a disaster.

I'm VERY curious to see what you think of Eight Skilled Gentlemen!

Jeanne said...

I liked this one enough that my husband got me a collection which includes The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. I haven't read the other ones yet, though.

Unknown said...

Ooooh, lucky! I'd love to see what you think of them when you do get to them.

Jill said...

This sounds fabulous! I like that you didn't give anything away in the review, but you still gave enough information about the book to make me want to read it. It's hard to do with books like this one, I think! :-)

Unknown said...

Darla, yes yes! Please read this book! I'd love to see what you think.