Book Review: Three Sisters

THREE SISTERSThis is the second book that I have read in my learning-culture-through-fiction, China kick. I am going to China in July. Perhaps I can get four more books read. I already have three waiting on the shelf and one of them is a bit enormous.

There are similarities between this novel and the previous, The Boat to Redemption. It takes place during the same political epoch, and there is the same obsession with sex. This book, however, deals with the powerlessness of women in that society, and how they might work to gain footing—often pointlessly and tragically—through whatever means is left to them. It is a sad book, really.

There is a very big problem with Three Sisters, by Bi Feiyu, and I am not the first to notice it. The book is about three sisters at heart, but Bi could not seem to focus, at all. First of all, he begins with a family of seven sisters. Why? If we’re going to focus on three, it probably would have been cleaner to have only (at least living) three sisters. Whatever. You can see why he did it, so you move on. But then the three sisters of the novel are not three sisters that fall in line in age or that even seem to interact at all. (The first two do, but not the third.) Then, and this is by far the worst, you get all excited about the way the second sister’s story weaves into the first one’s, and how the perspective between the two of them becomes a little complicated and flows and even the supporting characters overlap… and you turn the page to the third sister. Whaaah? The third sister’s story—though it easily could have—has NOTHING to do with the other two. You leave the town. You leave the time. And you just read a completely different story with completely different characters. Even if there is something Bi is trying to say here with these three particular stories, he could have—dare I say should have—done it by weaving the third sister’s story into the first two. The third sister could have gone to school in town with the first two. She could have interacted with the same people. The same power struggles, from a third angle, should have been in play.

And then when you think you’ve been disappointed enough and you’re just slogging through this unrelated and not especially engaging third sister’s story, the character’s in that story start shifting around, dropping storylines and picking up new ones at a whim. I had no idea where we were going, really, and I began not to care. Who was even in this story with Yuyang? Dunno. Don’t care.

Since you can tell that I really didn’t enjoy the third sister’s story, I am going to focus in on the first two sisters and pretend for a moment that the novel ended there. I mean, Bi certainly has an ability to write. I was pulled into the Wang Family Village, and into the lives of these sisters from the beginning. It was, although pretty sordid, interesting and engaging. I could feel the powerlessness of these (societally) almost pointless sisters, as well as their desperation and the inevitability of their failure. When the second sister’s story starts to weave in to the other, it just becomes a magical, musical, literary interaction which gives the story added depth. It wasn’t my favorite thing I’ve read, even just this year, but it was a beautiful, heart-breaking story from a land and a time which feel so distant and then so close.

A small thing: this may have something to do with the way in which Chinese writers write, or it may just be lost in translation, but there were times when the subtlety was too subtle, and it took a few readings of a paragraph until I just decided to move on without being sure about what just happened. Sometimes I figured it out later, sometimes not.

As a whole, I don’t know how to stack this book up against others. It won the Man Asian Literary Prize, but it also seems to have a lot of pretty bad reviews. I could legitimately tell you to read the first two sections and leave the third one alone. I am not lying when I say that it is so far removed that you would miss literally nothing as far as the first two sisters go. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what I would do. Call it Two Sisters if you want, and then maybe read that other “short story” later when you have the time and curiosity has just about killed the cat. Read it like a separate Bi story and maybe it will have something to contribute. It speaks to more of the same, but in a much more erratic and disjointed way.

Warning: There is some really sad stuff in here. Be prepared for R-rated tragedy, occasionally.

Synopsis: Read the first two sections if you are interested in Chinese or even world literature, especially having to do with women in society. Then stop there.



“A man with wounded self esteem develops a stubborn streak” (p5).

“There are countless ways to make a mistake; heaping praise on someone’s child is not one of them” (p33).

“She sat facing the wind, looking like one of those intrepid women in propaganda posters, a woman who could charm any man and still look death in the face without flinching” (p91).

“A woman could have a ton of feelings for a man, and that would not count as much to him as the several ounces she carries on her chest” (p106).

“She would have once chance, one beat of the drum” (p117).

“Having a clear goal is the only way to learn something” (P130).

“Admitting mistakes is never easy because you first need to determine what the person you’re dealing with is looking for” ({p143).

“The biggest enemy of death is not the fear of death but the desire to live” (p177).

“As the saying goes, ‘The trees want to stop moving, but the wind keeps blowing’” (p210).

“…it was the unified strength of a nation that was permeated with the intensity of boundless hatred and bottomless anger mixed with the flames of struggle and resistance” (p231).

“In art, anger and hatred are infectious; that is what art is all about” (p231).

“Nothing happens when everyone wins honors, but if you are the only one who does, then a staircase opens up in front of you” (p229).

“Once you meet someone, it seems that you’re always running into each other” (p239).

“Everyone knows that making no progress is the same a backpedaling” (p257).

“He has simply fallen into the vast sea of people” (p279).


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