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Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

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By Simon Demetriou

Rabbit, the elderly woman who recounts the tale of the empress In-yo from her exile to triumphant vengeance, sums up what she has learned with the aphorisms: ‘Honor is a light that brings trouble. Shadows are safer by far.’ Nghi Vo’s beautiful novella, the prequel to When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain – the review of which you might have read in The Cyprus Mail a few weeks ago – tells a story that explores both the truth and the powerful irony of Rabbit’s philosophical conclusion. In doing so, it reminds us of the honour due to those who are forced into the shadows.

On her way to the coronation of the new empress, the cleric Chih, who belongs to a holy order whose mission is to record the histories of the nation, stops at Lake Scarlet, a place that had been magically sealed from view for the best part of half a century. There, she discovers the house to which the late empress In-yo had been banished, and from which she planned her successful conquest of the ruling southern dynasty. In the house, Chih meets Rabbit, now an old woman, who had been a young servant when she accompanied In-yo into exile.

Over the course of the book, Rabbit reveals how In-yo, discarded, isolated and spied upon by the sinister Minister of the Left, manages to outwit the male, aristocratic hierarchy by recruiting a network of fortune tellers, themselves marginal figures used for brief entertainment before being cast aside. One of these fortune tellers is Sukai, whose romance with Rabbit produces an outcome that forever entwines two members of the peasantry with the northern matriarchy about to dominate the nation.

Ultimately, Vo ties womanhood with socio-economic exclusion and shows how the blindness of aristocratic men to the power of those they exclude leads to the eventual victory of the marginalised. In a book of around 100 pages, she brilliantly captures both a world in which the fantastical and grotesque shimmer, and one in which the art of storytelling – both Vo’s and Rabbit’s – is put to use to pass on wisdom that feels meaningful without being heavy-handed or ever detracting from the pace and drama of the plot. The shadows may be safer, but only because those who live in them possess more real honour than those who dwell in the light of what social convention merely calls ‘Honour’.

 

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