Author: Bi Feiyu
Publisher/Year: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/2010 (in Chinese, 2003)
Genre: Historical fiction
Theme: An exploration of the lives of three sisters and the manner in which they attempt and learn to take control of their lives at the tumultuous time of the Cultural Revolution.
The winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, Three Sisters is an intriguing and engaging look at the lives of three sisters (among seven) at a time when China was going through considerable change. It's a good look at a part of China and Chinese history that many think they know but where the actual picture has largely remained unknown, and a well crafted work (judging by some non-critic reviews it's very much a case of 'Your Mileage May Vary,' but I'll get to that later).
The blurb on the book conveys the essential structure of the book quite well:
In a small village in China, the Wang family has produced seven sisters in its quest to have a boy; three of the sisters emerge as the lead characters in this remarkable novel. From the small-town treachery of the village to the slogans of the Cultural Revolution to the harried pace of city life, Bi Feiyu follows the women as they strive to change the course of their destinies and battle against an “infinite ocean of people” in a China that does not truly belong to them. Yumi will use her dignity, Yuxiu her powers of seduction, and Yuyang her ambition—all in an effort to take control of their world, their bodies, and their lives.
The three part structure makes for a good look at the changing face of the China of that time through different perspetives, and provides an interesting setting. The three protagonists (and to some extent other characters) are well defined and come through quite strongly, with the author having developed a reputation for writing the 'female psyche' particularly well. Each character is strong in her own way, but their markedly different approaches take them down different paths. While reading this one starts to engage with the characters, and look at the world through their eyes, effectively developing a strong picture of the country in that particular period.
It is effectively the strong characterisation and setting that carry this novel along, with the writing style being somewhat more polarising. It is a fairly direct style without much flair. One could argue that this enhances a narrative that effectively aims to capture everyday life, but I've also seen plenty who said this made the book unreadable at some stage. Admittedly, I also have no idea if anything was lost in translation. At the end of the day, though, this is a compelling work that deserves the plaudits it has gained, and is a great look at China as it was (and in many parts continues to be).