This lush, bittersweet short novel centers around the lives of a ferryman and his orphaned granddaughter Cuicui living by a river bank outside a remote town on the Szechuan-Hunan provincial border (hence the title). The novel takes place at the time it was written, after the fall of the dynasty but before the chaos of the Japanese invasion and World War 2, when ancient traditions and morality were still intact, especially in distant outposts such as the town of Chadong.
Cuicui, aged 13 to 15 through the course of the story, dreams of romance while dreading the negative consequence of marriage: leaving her beloved, aging grandfather. Meanwhile she is courted by two brothers from the nearby town, one through a match-maker, the other by means of the Szechuanese tradition of love song serenades. In her innocence, Cuicui both deliberately and unintentionally ignores the brothers' advances.
The author depicts a beautiful and idyllic landscape as an almost cinematic backdrop for the reserved, taciturn relations between his characters. He employs short bursts of emotional dialogue, then pulls away to focus on the minutiae of rural life--the steel striker used to light a pipe, the feel of silk crepe turban cloth, jars of tung oil and bamboo tubes filled with wine--in the way that a bashful girl turns her head aside out of modesty.
Chen packs concentrated bursts of emotion into scenes throughout the novel, telling a heart-grabbing story of life by the river. It's a gorgeous book, considered a masterpiece of modern Chinese writing, for which the author was to have been awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature had he not died just before the official announcement.
The translation is beautifully written. Strongly recommended.