"The Girl Who Played Go" – By Shan Sa - Book Review

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I first read this book about 10 years ago, but came across it again and re-read it, and frankly I had forgotten quite how good it is.

It is set in China, or Manchuria to be more precise, in the early 1930s. It’s a country at war, and things are about to get a whole lot worse. There are two main characters in the book. A Chinese schoolgirl of seventeen and a Japanese officer of twenty-four. I don’t give their names for this book is not big on names. Neither of them is named until deep into the book, and one is never named.

The girl/young woman already has two ardent admirers and is puzzling over who to give herself to.

In the square in the local town Go players gather. They set out their Go stones, an open pot means they up for a challenge, a closed pot means they have a game already planned. They are keen too, some arriving as early as 5.30 in the morning, and they stay and play whatever the weather throws at them.

She is a consummate player, she always has been, beating her older mainly male relatives from an early age. The Chinese speaking Japanese officer is ordered by his senior officer to dress like a local, put on glasses, and go out in the city, and mingle with the locals, and pick up whatever intelligence he can.

He’s a Go player too, one of the best back in Japan, and inevitably he gravitates to the square, when he isn’t visiting the local brothels, where there is always gossip and intel to be gathered.

He sees the girl, waiting for a challenge, and can’t refuse.  They don’t introduce themselves, they rarely speak, they sit and play the ancient game, and how. The games go on for days. They leave the square at night only to return at the earliest opportunity. The games go on, through the boiling heat of the day. They both bring wafting fans, and use them too. The man fans hard, ostensibly himself, but in reality he fans her too. She notices, how could she not?

And the more they play the more their relationship deepens, though they still do not know who they are, or what they do, and she doesn’t even know he is Japanese. She struggles to see his eyes through the thick glasses. She would like to see his eyes. And as they continue playing the war situation grows progressively darker.

This is a relatively short book. The chapters are short too, sometimes only a single page. They take turns in telling the story. One chapter by her, followed by one from him. It keeps the reader interested, the pages turning, and the pace high.

This book has won many awards, particularly in the writer’s native France, and it is easy to see why. I checked on what else she has written and although there are a handful of titles there, none appear to have gained the readers and accolades that this book did, which is a pity.

It’s dark and bloody in places, producing several scenes that live long in the memory. The girl is slowly growing up, but will she successfully negotiate that difficult phase in her life, while living through an oncoming bloody war?

The Girl Who Played Go will take you on an unforgettable ride, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read it!      



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