Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: SONG OF THE SILK ROAD by Mingmei Yip

Pub. Date: April 2011
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
Format: Paperback , 352pp
SBN-13: 9780758241825
ISBN: 0758241828

Description (from the publisher):
In this richly imaginative novel, Mingmei Yip--author of Peach Blossom Pavilion and Petals From the Sky--follows one woman's daunting journey along China's fabled Silk Road.
As a girl growing up in Hong Kong, Lily Lin was captivated by photographs of the desert--its long, lonely vistas and shifting sand dunes. Now living in New York, Lily is struggling to finish her graduate degree when she receives an astonishing offer. An aunt she never knew existed will pay Lily a huge sum to travel across China's desolate Taklamakan Desert--and carry out a series of tasks along the way.
Intrigued, Lily accepts. Her assignments range from the dangerous to the bizarre. Lily must seduce a monk. She must scrape a piece of clay from the famous Terracotta Warriors, and climb the Mountains of Heaven to gather a rare herb. At Xian, her first stop, Lily meets Alex, a young American with whom she forms a powerful connection. And soon, she faces revelations that will redefine her past, her destiny, and the shocking truth behind her aunt's motivations. . .
Powerful and eloquent, Song of the Silk Road is a captivating story of self-discovery, resonant with the mysteries of its haunting, exotic landscape.

MY RATING:  4 out of 5 Stars

Is it possible or even sane to be jealous of a fictional character?  I so wanted to be Lily Lin, the main character in Mingmei Yip's newest novel, SONG OF THE SILK ROAD. Lily is offered the opportunity of a lifetime when an aunt she has never heard of offers her an inheritance of $3-million if she will successfully trace the aunt's earlier travels along China's Silk Road. With $50,000 to get her trip underway, Lily doesn't have much to lose: she is currently struggling to finish her first novel, waiting tables to pay the rent, and waiting for her married lover to leave his wife. (O.K. So, at this point in the story I wasn't yet jealous of Lily!)  Armchair traveler that I am, I would have undertaken this trip for far less than $3-mil!

I really like deserts, and a good part of the Silk Road is through the Taklamakan Desert.  It follows some of the most isolated and remote parts of the world. This doesn't prevent Lily from meeting extraordinarily interesting people and experiencing life-changing adventures. The author has a wonderful descriptive ability which transported this reader thousands of miles and allowed me to see through Lily's eyes. Here's a bit of Yip's description of the fearsome beauty and danger of the Taklamakan:
". . . flat, immense horizon with no foreseeable vanishing point . . . dunes of golden sand . . . robust, curvaceous women; sleeping dragons; even ruined cities with long-forgotten names . . . in a cobolt blue sky, a few clouds swam like shiny white fish and exotic birds chirped their shamanic chants . . . Not a car or truck was in sight. For thousands of years, these same sands, like huge whales, had swallowed caravans entire---merchants, wives, children, camels, goods for sale, everything . . . Over the centuries, desert explorers . . . met horrible deaths from thirst, heatstroke, starvation, sandstorms, bandit attacks, poisonous snakes, even demons. It was told that in the Tang dynasty, merchants and adventurers could simply follow the trail of skeletons . . ." (page 222, advanced reading copy)
Mingmei Yip has created some of the most memorable characters I've come across in fiction.  I absolutely love this passage describing Lily's first meeting with the herbalist Lop Nor:
"The creases on his forehead read like abstruse philosophical truths etched in an esoteric language waiting to be deciphered . . . His eyes, though sad, also emanated strong yang energy.  However, what really caught my attention and made my heart ache were his hands---large, brown, leathery, scarred.  His fingers were thick, calloused, tipped with nails lined with faint dark ridges.  What had this man done with those hands---just collecting herbs on the mountain, or digging graves to house ghosts?"  (page 74, advanced reading copy)
My only complaint about SONG OF THE SILK ROAD is the author's too frequent use of the F-word. For me, it rendered scenes that could have been luxuriously sensual to being clinical at best and crass at worst. Perhaps it was meant to reveal a frank and open attitude toward sexuality, but I found the overuse of the word to be clunky in comparison to the refinement and sensitivity of other passages.

What I liked best about this novel is the way Mingmei Yip has woven the story of a young woman discovering her own strength and character with fascinating Chinese history, folklore, and culture and also mixed in mystery and romance. SONG OF THE SILK ROAD is a multi-layered and satisfying story full of images and characters that will linger in my mind for a long time. 

I'm still jealous of Lily Lin and wish I could follow her trail along the Silk Road, but for now I'll have to content myself with reading the author's previous novels. I have a feeling treasures await me along that path as well.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Click here to visit the author's website.

About the author (from the publisher):
Mingmei Yip was born in China, received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and held faculty appointments at the Chinese University and Baptist University in Hong Kong. She's published five books in Chinese, written several columns for seven major Hong Kong newspapers, and has appeared on over forty TV and radio programs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and the U.S. She immigrated to the United States in 1992, where she now lives in New York City.

FTC Disclosure: Not only did I not receive $3-million for this review, I didn't receive any monetary compensation. I did receive a free advanced reading copy in order to provide my honest opinion of the book.


Zibilee said...

This sounds excellent, as I have always been more than a little curious about the Silk Road. I agree with you, you wouldn't have to pay me 3 million to go research this, but I wouldn't sneer at it either!

bermudaonion said...

That does sound like the trip of a lifetime.