The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having already reviewed Bridge of Birds, the first of Hughart’s novels featuring Master Li and his then client, now assistant Number Ten Ox, I fear repetition. Set in an ancient China that never was, our heroes are in a land which satirically conforms with Chinese culture in a believable way, not least because Hughart is someone who has clearly done his research.
Where the humour of the first novel was to the fore, here it seems a tad muted as Hughart gets into his writerly stride. If the story of the first novel wound its way through a series of vignettes across multiple locations, here the plot is more coherent with the characters less inclined towards the Grand Tour in their quest. Magic makes its matter-of-fact appearance throughout, and the gods play no small part in the narrative yet this is somehow not fantasy. Not quite. The hyperbole isn’t there, though it’s not particularly missed in its absence. Instead mischief prevails as previously as the sage and the strong man double-act their way through the twists and turns of the work.
And my, how it twists and turns.
Number Ten Ox is our storyteller, and he says at the outset that the story is so confusing he’s not sure he can make head nor tail of it. This may be modesty on the part of the narrator. He never seems to lose his way in telling the story, nor does he express any confusion. Alternatively, it may be a late edit on the part of the author who, told that the plot was going to lose most readers, decided to make that a feature instead of a glitch. Well ha! You don’t fool me, Mr. Hughart. Glitch it was, and glitch it remains. I managed to keep most of what was happening in focus, but found myself rather dazed by the end of it all.
Perhaps not so much of a glitch, though. The work is fun and, though it would be pushing it to say the plot is immaterial, the pleasure taken in getting lost in it and never quite finding my way out again outweighed any irritation.
I’m already on the third and final book of the series. Master Li and Number Ten Ox continue to be pleasant company.