With each passing day I mentally revisit scenes from this spare novel. (Spare in length and style.) The premise--the children of Chinese professionals who have been designated "enemies of the state" during the Cultural Revolution are sent to be "re-educated" by peasants in remote villages--is immediately engaging.
The chances for these youths to return to any semblance of their former lives are slim. The main characters in this story, the unnamed narrator and his close friend Luo, wind up sharing quarters in the same remote village on the side of a mountain and they find solace in their friendship and with their love and admiration for the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. They also discover and steal a cache of French novels, literature that has been forbidden by the anti-intellectual Red Guard. Nevertheless, they immerse themselves in the literature and the stories give them hope of better times and release from the hardships of their transplanted lives. The books are also seen by Luo as the means by which he may transform the Little Chinese Seamstress into a civilized, urbane woman. The complications of love and re-education drive the plot. Of course, re-education comes to mean more than what the powers behind the Cultural Revolution intend: it includes what the two boys learn about themselves and their neighbors and, ironically, the consequences of Luo's presumption that the seamstress will benefit from his civilizing instruction based upon the French literature.
Dai Sijie's style is clean and simple. The novel is very much about story-telling, and the narrator, in retelling his experiences, provides the model for an effective narrative (without Western Post-Modern self-referential gimmickry). The character's are endearing and memorable, the settings are vivid, and the events are believable and very, very human. Highly recommended.