The last of the Chicago five reviews, a mesmerizing tale of life by Wang Anyi.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow
By Wang Anyi
Translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan
Columbia; 440 pages; $29.95

Without delving into historical and political intricacies, Wang Anyi’s novel “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” tells a story of post-World War II Shanghai by first laying out the city in laborious detail—painstakingly recording the labyrinthine longtang, or townhouse, residential neighborhoods, the pigeons, the pervasive current of gossip and seemingly every breeze of working-class life—like a camera slowly focusing its lens.

Wang’s Anyi’s exacting narration eventually settles on a central character, Wang Qiyao—an pretty but not gorgeous, unsympathetic but not distasteful woman who nonetheless inspires worship in friends and men, and earns her third place in the Miss Shanghai competition. She is deliberately positioned as a quintessential stand-in for all women: “Behind every doorway in the Shanghai longtang a Wang Qiyao is studying, embroidering, whispering secrets.”

Throughout the novel’s crucial span from 1946-1986, Wang Qiyao’s nostalgia recreates her past in every era and chapter. Friends and paramours exit swiftly and with little mention, quickly replaced by new ones; history lies in the background, evidenced only through wardrobe changes and changing food and currency availability—and thus Wang Anyi subtly yet pointedly reveals life’s repetitive nature.

Like Wang Qiyao, the novel is alternately appealing and tedious. It has a plot but is not plot-driven, and is a life portrait meant to stand for all lives. The hypnotic prose and melancholic story leave readers with the sense of walking slowly on a mesmerizing treadmill, as if the act of reading also makes them, alongside the characters, “part of a cycle that has been renewing itself since time immemorial.”

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