The Walking Boy


Thomas Trofimuk, Edmonton Journal

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Converging plotlines weave a rich tapestry: The Walking Boy vivid depiction of 8th-century China

There were moments while reading Lydia Kwa's new novel The Walking Boy where I could imagine a really good swordfight, reminiscent of a scene from the movie Hero, or people flying above trees, like in that Crouching Tiger movie. This book has that kind of mystical, dreamlike feel. Well, there are no swordfights and no flying duels above still mountain lakes in this book. But this narrative is a fantastic, captivating dream filled with spirit demons, exorcisms, ripped-apart love and treachery with deadly consequences.

Baoshi is the walking boy, on a mission for his master, Harelip, a reclusive monk who adopted the boy when he was eight. Baoshi, now 16 years old, sets off to walk to Chang'an, the ancient Western Capital to find a sculptor named Ardhanari, Harelip's former lover.

Baoshi is a hermaphrodite, and was abandoned by his own parents because they couldn't cope with this anomaly. This is a secret that he shares only with Harelip.

This manifest joining of male and female energy is part of what makes Baoshi an incredible character. With Harelip's love, he/she has grown beyond his parents' shame. And with Harelip's teachings, Baoshi has grown beyond naivete into a kind of wide-eyed wisdom, not to mention a restrained master in the martial arts.

And now, with Harelip near death, the walking boy must find Harelip's former love and bring him back.

In the course of this novel we get to meet an aging and particularly nasty female emperor in 8th-century China, a teashop run by a gaggle of soft-hearted transvestites and an enslaved Imperial Secretary named Wan'er, whose father and grandfather were killed by the woman she serves.

This Imperial Court is deceitful, decadent and, ultimately, dangerous. These people will do almost anything to land in a position close to power.

It's fascinating to watch and Kwa has a deft hand at portraying this sort of corrupt, amoral world. The axiom about absolute power corrupting absolutely is at the heart of this Imperial Court. And as Wan'er begins to see her own life more clearly, she begins to long for that which is not corrupt, yet she is trapped by circumstance and by her own ambition.

It's no wonder she is inexplicably drawn to the simple, pure Baoshi and to Ling, the Abbess of Da Fa temple, who becomes her lover.

Ling is summoned by the Empress to rid the Imperial Palace of demon spirits -- manifestations of a particularly brutal revenge orchestrated by the Empress years in the past.

The characters who inhabit The Walking Boy -- even the morally bankrupt characters -- are drawn with compassion. Kwa shows us why the monk Harelip is a hermit and how he is tied to the sculptor, Ardhanari.

She also shows us Ardhanari's struggle with his vitality as a sculptor.

It's a testament to Kwa's talent as writer that she manages to weave these converging plotlines into a rich tapestry that offers a vivid snapshot of a time.

The book, only partially based on historical events and characters, reads true. The writing is spare, laconic and deceptively simple. This is a beautifully layered tapestry. It's the kind of book you'll yearn for after you set it down.

I know it's ridiculous to compare movies to books, but if I had to I'd take this book over the movie Hero or Crouching Tiger any day -- and I quite loved Hero. The Walking Boy is a much richer offering.

Thomas Trofimuk is a freelance reviewer, novelist and poet.

Claire Stirling, Calgary Herald

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Demon ghosts haunt a female emperor

Where secrets abound, mysteries also exist. The world of the 8th-century Tang Dynasty, under the tight grip of a dying female emperor, is a place of palace intrigues, demon spirits and simple pleasures.

Baoshi, the two-sexed young disciple of a mountain-top monk, is sent on a pilgrimage to locate his master's former lover. Along the way, villagers from the town at the bottom of the mountain ask him to deliver a letter petitioning the emperor for a break in taxes due to floods that have ruined their crops. This leads Baoshi to a fateful meeting with Nu Huang (who eschews the title empress as it is outranked by the status of female emperor).

The Walking Boy, Lydia Kwa's second novel, is a story that explores sexuality, obligation, revenge and longing. Kwa's characters are distinct, fascinating and tell their stories in strong, identifiable voices. Fairly short sections alternate action so that the many threads of the story are seen often and are easy to follow.

Female Emperor Nu Huang is plagued by horrible nightmares, haunted by the demon ghosts of two women she had tortured to death in the most monstrous manner.

She seeks immortality through elixirs prepared by court alchemists. Her affairs with young men, two brothers in particular, may scandalize her subjects, but she isn't about to give up such behaviour, which would be acceptable for any male emperor, what with their elaborate retinue of concubines.

Since she knows the official record of her reign will be written and kept by a bunch of men after her death, she decides to write her own account.

"This Palace Diary will be the most intimate version of my rise to power . . . It will surpass the official records in revealing my deepest secrets," she announces to the shock of her disapproving ministers.

Her Imperial Secretary and personal slave, Wan'er, is delighted by the idea but has second thoughts about accepting the task of editing her master's diaries.

Wan'er, prophesied to have the power to measure out the world with a giant set of scales, is sent on her own sort of pilgrimage on behalf of Nu Huang. The emperor seeks the advice of an abbess known for her ability to exorcise ghosts. Also responsible for poet laureate-type assignments, Wan'er, keeps a running conversation with a book of poems that reveals many of her innermost thoughts as well.

Kwa, a Vancouver writer and psychologist, is also known for her first poetry collection, The Colours of Heroines. In The Walking Boy she has evoked a dream-like quality with its exotic long-ago setting, and explores themes of humanity in a captivating manner that results in a truly unique novel, written with passion and imagination.

Claire Stirling is the editor of the Herald's Neighbours section and is a regular contributor to Books.