Friday, August 2, 2013

Summer Reading - The Garlic Ballads

I finished reading The Garlic Ballads (by Mo Yan) a few days ago and I'm here to tell you not to read it. It may have won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, but it was such a bleak and depressing and yes, brutal, view of China that I didn't like it. 

When I first started reading the book I thought it must be set back in some ancient dynasty as life was very primitive with most of the farming being done by hand and the peasants being terrorized by the people in authority.  I was surprised to find out that the book was set in 1987.  The Garlic Ballads is based on a true story about an uprising by the farmers in Gaomi Township in Northeast China.  Although the government encouraged the farmers to plant garlic there ended up being a glut on the market resulting in the government not buying the garlic and the farmers rioting.

Although The Garlic Ballads was well written and the story was interesting, it was just too brutal. Is China really that brutal?  I have no idea, but I can't imagine there isn't kindness and love within families or between neighbours. I wasn't surprised that the officials and the police and the jail wardens were aggressive and brutal, but the villagers and family were fighting and mean to each other as well.  

Like I mentioned in my review of The Help, the book needs to have hope for it to be enjoyable for me.  I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and I felt the same way I did about The Garlic Ballads.  I ended both books upset that they were just endless retelling of lives full of misery.  

So, while I can't recommend that you read this book, I did find it interesting to read about the homes in Northeast China.  I did some hunting on the internet and have become a recent expert in kang beds.  I've pulled together some visuals to illustrate what I think some of the images (the more pleasant ones anyway) from The Garlic Ballads looked like:

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

So what do you think? Can you read difficult books, books that are depressing or brutal?  Or do you need a little hope and kindness in the lives of the main characters in the stories you read?

Linked to Literary Friday at Art @ Home


  1. I have so few hours to myself to read so when I do, I prefer something enjoyable. I tend to stay away from disturbing books because I like to keep positive thing in my head - and yes I need the characters to have some hope and kindness. I need to really like them and want to root for them. Thanks for the honest review!

  2. I have read some very depressing books and do so if they provide a truth I feel I need to know about. My French Canadian neighbor lived in China as a rural tour guide and loved it. He speaks fluent Mandarin. I should see what he thinks of the book from the persepctive of someone who has live there, but is not from there.

    I have been complaining bitterly for years that ALL the garlic in Sobeys, Loblaws, etc was from China...we grow masses of garlic here in Ontario and wonder why we ave to buy stuff that has been on a boat for 2 months.

  3. I don't think I can read it, truly. I totally agree with Calypso! If I couldn't care less about a character or characters, I usually don't like the book.

  4. I'm not much of a reader anymore...but when I did read I always enjoyed a good cry at a sad novel. Sad is one thing, depressing is another. I admire you for getting all the way through this book. I would most likely have given up! Hope your summer is going well ~ Ann

  5. I enjoy reading books with characters with whom I can relate. A sad story or an issue to ponder will not discourage me from reading a novel but I do no enjoy violence.

  6. :D Thanks for linking-up, Sweetie!

  7. Such interesting comments. I persisted in reading the book because it had been given to me and even more because it had won the Nobel Prize for Literature so I wanted to find see if I found it to be a great book as well. The part I liked the best was learning something about northern China (e.g. the kang beds). I would love to know Chania (or anyone else) if there is any truth to how rural China is portrayed.

  8. Grace, I have been thinking of you all day.

    I love a book that is well written & love, LOVE to get a glimpse of life in another land or another time...


    yes, I need a little hope too. I read A Fine Balance as well & thought it was so well written, but it left me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I have trouble slugging it out.