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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Girl who Played Go

Shan Sa

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To purchase The Girl who Played Go

Title: The Girl who Played Go
Author: Shan Sa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 312 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Girl who Played Go - US
The Girl who Played Go - UK
The Girl who Played Go - Canada
La joueuse de go - Canada
La joueuse de go - France
Die Go-Spielerin - Deutschland
  • French title: La joueuse de go
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter
  • Awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens
  • Awarded 2004 Kiriyama Prize for fiction

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Our Assessment:

B+ : compelling but rushed and ultimately without sufficient depth

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A+ 24/8/2002 .
The Guardian A- 24/5/2003 Sarah A. Smith
The Independent D 10/5/2003 Aamer Hussein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/10/2003 Janice P. Nimura
The Observer B+ 1/6/2003 Geraldine Bedell
San Francisco Chronicle . 19/10/2003 Sara Ivry
Sydney Morning Herald . 17/5/2003 Christopher Bantick
The Times . 14/5/2003 Anthea Lawson
TLS B 20/6/2003 Julia Lovell
The Washington Post . 4/1/2003 Amy Kroin

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though most approving of at least aspects of it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es mag scheinen, daß das geheime Fundament dieses wunderschönen, so sanften wie grausamen Romans auf dem Modell der Transgression ruht, wie es zumal George Bataille beschrieben hat, auf der unauflösbaren Verschlingung von Eros, Tod und Erkenntnis. Doch Shan Sa lädt solche Theoriehülsen, im Wortsinn spielend, auf mit der Lebensfülle ihrer Heimat und der ihrer Vorfahren, die der Mandschurei entstammen. China ist ihr nicht von fern phantasiertes Faszinosum, sondern ist ihr Traum- und Vaterland." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It certainly marks Shan Sa out as one of several diaspora writers currently experimenting with a fusion of western and eastern traditions. But it does not always make for an easy read. Although for the most part the voices of the protagonists are well differentiated, the girl's agonies dominate those of the equally troubled soldier. Similarly, the brevity of the accounts of each impedes much of a sense of involvement in the story, and the cautious strategic opening of a game of go drags the narrative pace of the first third of the book." - Sarah A. Smith, The Guardian

  • "The theme has potential, but the period has been done before and better: by Amy Tan, for example. Shen doesn't handle passion well, and the novel's desultory sex adds little more than sensation to a melodramatic story. Her intense lyricism amounts all too often to overkill. One can visualise the film version, though: directed by a Hollywood name, financed by multinational corporations, filmed in Hong Kong with a cast of diasporic stars." - Aamer Hussein, The Independent

  • "Shan (...) writes spare prose adorned with images that linger in the mind (.....) But in this elegant translation from the French by Adriana Hunter, the dreamlike, mesmerizing alternation of voices stands in uneasy contrast to the operatic violence of the plot." - Janice P. Nimura, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is brutal and domestic and has a big dramatic arc; like a much shorter, more constrained Dr Zhivago, it has the sweep of war and the intimacy of a love story. (...) The Girl Who Played Go may perhaps be a little formal, a little too freighted by symbolism to be the same sort of success in the UK that it has been in France." - Geraldine Bedell, The Observer

  • "Though at times Shan's metaphors are questionable, the writing is generally precise, and the historical backdrop, itself a forceful character, provides a compelling context for this economical story of impossible love." - Sara Ivry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The game of Go is a metaphor for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the resistance one young girl is able to mount by remaining undefeated at the game. But, more significantly, these enemies are forced to realise things about one another which were at first impossible to countenance." - Christopher Bantick, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "As the game between these two progresses, the choices of tactics match the decisions she is making in her life and the developments in his. Sa's language is graceful and trance-like: her fights are a whirling choreography of flying limbs and snow, her emotions richly yet precisely expressed. So spellbinding is the atmosphere created that this reviewer reached the horrifying denouement without having noticed that she didn't even know the characters' names." - Anthea Lawson, The Times

  • "The book's brief, episodic chapters have a concise simplicity that complements Shan Sa's style. Her sentences are short, expressive and, on occasion, brilliantly illuminated by flashes of imagery. (...) At its best, The Girl Who Played Go is the appealingly direct story of a girl's passage to sexual maturity under the shadow of foreign invasion. The novel is weakened, however, by loose ends in the plot." - Julia Lovell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "No detail or sentiment is allowed to exist on its own; it must be compared to something else, and generally in such an intricately specific way that the effect is distracting rather than revealing. (...) An unabashedly political novel, it reveals a tension at its core: The content is compelling but the actual telling is in need of work." - Amy Kroin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Girl who Played Go is told in alternating chapters, by a Chinese girl (going on sixteen when the book begins) in a Manchurian town in the late 1930s and a Japanese soldier who eventually comes to be posted there.
       Manchuria has been occupied by the Japanese for several years as the story opens, but there is an active insurgency movement. The girl, however, lives a relatively sheltered life. Her great passion (and talent) is the game of go (an ancient strategic board game popular in Far Eastern Asia, comparable in complexity to chess), and she spends much of her time playing in the Square of a Thousand Winds, a place where players come for pick-up games of go (and where she generally easily beats all comers). She is quickly maturing, and becomes sexually active over the course of the novel, but go always remains something she can (indeed: needs to) return to, something to focus on where she remains in control and where she can be certain of the rules (and of her abilities). In the novel, the game of go mirrors both the play between men and women, as well as the conflict between China and Japan (a conflict that progresses locally in those same small moves as a game of go does).
       Chapters alternate between the girl describing her everyday life and the Japanese soldier, coming closer and finally actually being posted in the same town. Shan Sa takes her time in building up the novel, as both narrators also describe past events along the way, filling out their backgrounds. Each stands somewhat apart from those they are surrounded by -- the girl's nickname at school even is "foreigner" (to her schoolmates: "my passion for go is like some exotic madness"). The Japanese soldier is unlike most of his comrades in that he speaks Chinese: brought up by strict Japanese parents, he had a loving Chinese nanny, and so for him: "Chinese was the language of dreams and of consolation".
       The girl gets involved with some of the local revolutionaries, but her interest is only romantic and sexual and she does not get involved in the actual underground activities. She is also not a true romantic: a lover promises to marry her after the Japanese have been forced out, but that doesn't appeal to her: "I don't want to get married. Go and take care of the revolution." She prefers to be able to return to her games of go.
       The Japanese Captain in charge of operations in the town believes the go-playing in the public square is just a cover:

The game of go is just a camouflage: it's there on the square, as they pretend to play their war game, that our enemies are putting together their twisted strategies.
       The Japanese soldier is sent there undercover, dressed up like a Chinese man, with some cover-story to explain his accent. Naturally, he winds up playing the Chinese girl. He doesn't need his cover-story -- they don't even exchange names (she just refers to him as 'the Stranger' and he to her as 'the Chinese girl') but rather get right down to business.
       Their game is a long one, and they return day after day to continue it. They observe each other, and note the changes each is going through (reflections of what is happening to them away from the game), but never get into any sort of conversation. A great deal is happening around them too, from the girl's budding sex-life (and the not entirely unexpected eventual consequences thereof) to the soldier's military activities. There's also a good deal of focus on the characters around them: the soldier's concern for his family at home, his letters to his mother, adjusting to the differences between life in Japan and Manchuria, while the Chinese girl has a variety of family issues to deal with, as well as a variety of friends with their own problems.
       Things come to a head when the Japanese capture many of the insurgents, which affects both of the go-players. The girl isn't that easily caught up in the real-world concerns around her: when carnage is reported to her: "I listen to her half-heartedly; when I am in the middle of a game of go, I am completely intoxicated and cut off from the outside world." But she knows some of those that have been captured, and is worried about their fate and eventually moved to action. The Japanese soldier too is affected by the treatment of the prisoners.
       The novel moves at a faster and faster pace, as the endgame approaches: desperation increases as the world around is thrown into war. The soldier and the girl both seek escape, first taking tentative steps and then, in the book's (melo-)dramatic finale cutting completely loose.

       The story is fairly well presented, and there are scenes that Shan conveys very well; there are also a number of picture-perfect (in placement and expression) observations (as in the chapter-closing sentence: "A carp pirouettes in a large jar that serves as an aquarium"). The central characters are well-drawn, and the stories surrounding them interesting. If anything, Shan moves much too fast across too many different stories: this is a book that could have readily been fleshed out much more.
       Surprisingly, among the least impressive aspects of the book is the integration of the game of go. Shan does not use the game particularly well to mirror her story: the initial back and forth is somewhat like the slow build-up of a game of go, but the connexion is not made clear enough. Disappointingly, the game between the soldier and the girl also never comes to life, and Shan could have made much more of their encounters over the board.
       The quick, brutal ending is effective, but also too easy and melodramatic (and, in parts, sounds simply too unlikely). The brutality of the Japanese occupation is captured well (and nicely contrasted to the girls comfortable, cloistered existence), but also ultimately dealt with too quickly.
       The many stories related in The Girl who Played Go, and the well-drawn characters, do make for a compelling read -- but the book has the feel of a tome twice or three times the length that has (disappointingly) been watered down to this.

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The Girl who Played Go: Reviews: Go: Shan Sa: Other books by Shan Sa under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature under review
  • See Index of Chinese literature

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About the Author:

       Shan Sa was born in China in 1972 and moved to France in 1990. She writes in French.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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