Opening with a board game in the middle of a park, The Girl Who Played Go seems in no hurry to make its move. The two characters, who will introduce themselves at their own pace, make no sudden moves. And yet even that opening moment is poetic snapshot, interesting enough for a second look.
By the time that second look is over, one of the players has introduced himself as a young Japanese soldier, eager to serve honor and country. The other presents herself as a young Chinese woman, just beginning to enjoy the power of her sexuality. From different countries, from wholly different expectations, their lives unite, move by move.
Shan writes the book itself with the pacing of a game, giving both her Chinese girl and Japanese fighter their brief turns. This gimmick could be tiring, but Shan handles it deftly to create a sense of illusory independence between her characters. The two players show not just a different interpretation of the world, but a different acknowledgment of it. Even in scenes they both study, the gap between their experience creates two different stories. The young woman is determined to make her life a romance, the soldier intent on living a heroic epic, and their attempts to create these different worlds draw them together with gravitational force that would be missed from either perspective alone. The brief moments of each perspective also serve to create a strobelike effect, moving the war and the lives in it across China with horrifying suddenness. A turn of the page moves the scene from a family dinner to a military bombardment, from a flower garden to an execution, blending the extraordinary traumas of war with the humble drama of adolescence in an increasingly painful unity.
Shan writes with poetic eloquence, pulling her narrative focus wide or zooming into her charactersí hearts with expert timing. The translation by Adriana Hunter also deserves credit. Itís easy for any translation to become dry and oversimplified, but Hunter never loses the personality of the language or the feel of a scene. Together, they maintain the effect of a prose poem, evocative without being wordy. The anonymity of the two players, preserved until the last pages, helps nurture the dreamlike inevitability of their story. With no names, they are not people, they are Go partners, actors with prescribed movements allowed them, working by a set of rules that individuals would shatter.
The war in China had few happy endings, and The Girl Who Played Go is not privileged to one of them. But the ending maintains the sober beauty of the novel, and the grimness feels earned rather than forced. This is not a book for airport reading, but it is one of the few stories fit and able to find a place in an attentive heart.