Review: The Girl Who Played Go

Shan Sa, The Girl Who Played Go (trans. Adriana Hunter)

This novel is set in a place and time that I have very little knowledge of, Manchuria in the 1930s. The two narrators are a Chinese schoolgirl whose passion for the game of go makes her unique and a Japanese soldier who has come to China with Japan’s invading army. The soldier muses on the nature of war and his victorious country’s relationship with the conquered Chinese. The girl, on the other hand, is more concerned with her widening romantic experience and the problems of daily life. But when the two characters meet over a game of go, the consequences will be far-reaching and devastating for them both.

What I liked most about this book is that it opened a window for me into another culture and way of life. I mistakenly thought the book would be more about Japan’s military movements in World War II, but instead it deals with an earlier conflict that I knew nothing about. But while the setting was unique, the problems the soldier faces in this book are universal: What is courage? What are the possible justifications, if any, for waging war? What are the circumstances under which a soldier can or should disobey orders? I found the soldier a more compelling character overall than the Chinese girl. She’s very shallow and frivolous for much of the novel, and while she does eventually change, it happened too late for me to care much about her. I also didn’t feel the emotional impact of the ending the way I think I was supposed to. Overall, I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t race to pick up another book by this author.

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