Mo Yan's re-creation of the Boxer Rebellion begins, as it will end, with first-person narratives by voluptuous Meiniang and the four men in her life: her father, an opera singer leading the rebellion against German railroad workers; her husband, a dull, muscular butcher of dogs and pigs; her father-in-law, the imperial executioner assigned to punish the rebel leader; and her rich lover, the magistrate who betrays her father to the foreign invaders. The plot of Sandalwood Death has all the ingredients of an operatic tragedy; indeed, the monologues that form the opening and closing chapters each begin with lyrics from a Chinese folk opera based on the same story.
Zhao Jia, the imperial executioner, is such a cold-blooded, ruthless fellow that only the novel's first sentence, revealing that the heroine will stab him to death in seven days, gives the reader the courage to continue as Zhao Jia performs hideously cruel executions, as well as abusing and tormenting the more likable pawns in this dark, suspenseful love story. Fortunately, the heroine's not-so-bright husband provides comic relief, blundering along good-naturedly, blind to the obvious, falling out of bed when she screams in her sleep with desire for another man.
Mo Yan is a mesmerizing and daring storyteller, constantly showing the other side of characters you thought you knew. It's only near the end of this huge novel that Mo Yan gives us a glimpse of the staggering finale he has painstakingly prepared--a once-in-a-lifetime ending no reader will ever, ever forget. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle