Genre: Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman
Narrative Style: Third person from three different points of views.
Synopsis: Three, Five and Six are country girls who move to Nanjing to try and get jobs in order to help their family and to prove that girls can be more than mere chopsticks. The novel details their difficulties in coming to terms with the different ways of the city and the various jobs they end up doing.
The Li Sisters are from a poor rural area of China where girls are not valued. They are considered chopsticks – abundant and not that strong or important – compared to boys who are room beams – able to hold up the world. As such, they do not even have proper names, being called Three, Five and Six. Their father is a failure as he has only daughters. Apart from six, they do not have much education as the family could not afford it. They go to Nanjing to try and get jobs, to help their families and prove that girls can be important.
This novel was set in the early 2000s and based on interviews that Xinran conducted with various country girls working in Nanjing. I kept having to remind myself that it was so recent. It seems hard to credit that China was so cut off from the rest of the world and only just seeming to be coming to terms with technology and capitalism. The difference between the cities and the country is enormous. Probably the last time there was such a big difference in the UK was before the industrial revolution.
The three girls all end up with jobs that seem to represent the possibilities of the new China – one working in a restaurant which is aiming to take on the the American giants Kentucky Fried Chicken, one in a bookstore serving tea to intellectuals and foreigners and one in a Chinese water therapy centre. The girls are astonishingly naïve which is to be expected, given that they have never been further than their village but again gave the novel a much older feel.
Xinran tells their story simply and without melodrama. The girls are charming and their experiences are interesting. They learn to deal with the city, with the ways that Chinese society is changing and their story seems emblematic of the new society. It seems a largely hopeful picture.
The story ends with the girls triumphant return to their village, full of the knowledge that they have made friends and made a life for themselves. Their uncle was picked up by the police for sleeping in a doorway when he came to find them to take them home and all the new friends and associates the girls have made pull together to try and get him out. Although, in the end, it is sheer luck that he is released rather than anything that they do.
In her afterword, Xinran explains the inspiration for the stories and what happened when she tried to trace the three girls that the story is based on. It seems that the future wasn’t quite so rosy. For example, the bookshop that Six worked in had been closed down for selling banned books and it was unknown whether her dreams of education came to fruition. China’s progress towards freedom of thought and action has clearly not been straightforward and while I knew that already, I found that I had been caught up in the gentle optimism of the three girls and their successes.