Review: Barry Hughart – Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never WasBridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bridge of Birds is based upon the legend that lurks behind China’s “Lovers’ Day” in which a couple is separated, but permitted to meet once a year in the heavens. Hughart takes this as its theme, and presents an unlikely duo – the flawed sage Li Kao and his assistant, Number Ten Ox – as his main characters, traversing a China that never was in the hope of helping the children of Number Ten Ox’s village suffering from an illness and, along the way, aiding the legendary couple to meet again after a thousand years of separation.

Never having lived in ancient China, I can’t speak for the veracity of Hughart’s portrayal. However, in satirical form his China is believable enough and in its customs and behaviour lie much of the humour that characterises the work. As humour goes it tends towards affectionate mischief, but Bridge of Birds disqualifies itself as a humorous novel as such with lyrical and poignant passages, (or at least one towards the end), and a twisting plot within which we’re never quite sure where we are, never quite sure where we’re going. Hughart’s not just writing for laughs.

The tale unfurls through vignettes, any one of which would – with only a little editing – serve as a short story in its own right, and so we are swept from scene to scene on the back of Li Kao’s and Number Ten Ox’s boundless enthusiasm for their quest. The landscape is littered with matter-of-fact fantasy in ghosts, strange artefacts, giant spiders, impossible castles and larger-than-life characters, but I felt at times that some of the description was a little lacking. The ideas jaw-dropping at times, my jaw never quite dropped.

Though a great believer in writing for pleasure and, if successful, you will please your audience, I would make one small exception for Hughart in his scene transitions, occasionally so abrupt as to seem impertinent. I found myself reading up a few paras to see how we’d got to here from there only to find that we hadn’t. From one paragraph to the next we just leapt from one location to the other. The odd bridging paragraph here and there wouldn’t have gone amiss, however eager Hughart may have been to rush off to the next scene.

Hughart is excellent with dialogue and characterisation. Repetition plays a key role in his writing as when, about to undertake some action almost certain to lead to their deaths, the characters trade their ideals of reincarnation and then bid one another farewell in the names of those future guises. Dialogue cuts from the relevant to the irrelevant background keeping us in the scene to great humorous effect. Hughart’s timing is superb. He’s not after belly-laughs, but he’s skilled at raising an affectionate smile.

The first of three novels featuring Master Li and Number Ten Ox, I have moved happily onto the second, The Story of the Stone. Whether they will sustain my affection for all three novels has yet to be seen but so far, so good.

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