The Ten Thousand Things

by John Spurling

25 Words or Less:

While awaiting trial for a non-crime committed in fourteenth century China, an old man thinks back upon the life he led as a skilled artist.

Cover Art:

I’m not really sure how I feel about it, to be honest. The artwork is obviously very beautiful, if muted, but small irregularities in the titles (the words oriented this way then that; the extra black borders at the top and bottom) feel not especially well-thought-out to me.

Formatting, Grammar & Spelling:

Professional, no errors noted, British English (I think).


Very nicely written, though fearsomely dense. This promises to be the kind of book you must sink time into. The descriptions of the environment feel very much like someone describing the content of a painting in great detail — which is likely the author’s intent.

Characterisation & Dialogue:

The book opens with the monologue of a man in his mid-eighties, incarcerated under suspicion of an innocent act which changing social context has made a transgression. Wang Meng’s inner voice establishes him as a person of clarity and precision, and when the book segues into his past this careful, detailed mode is maintained, even though the narrative shifts to the third person.

Although it isn’t made clear within the text of the sample (for obvious, admirable reasons, since few persons of note spend their time thinking about their status in explanatory detail, if anyone does), this is the story of one of China’s great classical artists.


Was I enticed by the story so far? Yes, though as I said before this isn’t the kind of tale that rushes off the page. Wang picks up his story as a mid-level official in his thirties, dissatisfied with his career and unsatisfactory to his wife, who compares him to his more successful family members and finds him wanting. He is more engaged with his art, but she notes that all his relatives are artists in their spare time as well: painting is a pass-time, not an appropriate living for a person of an old, good family like his.

Wang has responded by quitting his job and taking himself alone to his summer residence, leaving his wife in the city. Accompanied only by a handful of servants, he settles to paint and take on a few menial tasks as required; but, as the story begins, one evening after collecting firewood by the nearby river he discovers that he has lost a white jade ring left to him by his grandfather, the man who first inspired his creativity. Urgent searching fails to turn it up, and Wang becomes preoccupied by thoughts of fate and loss.

He thinks back to his childhood and youth, turning over the significance of the ring to him, and to his mother and grandmother after the grandfather’s death; from there, he reflects on the greater history of ring and family, of service given by his patriarchal ancestor to Kublai Khan and the conflicts represented in abetting a conqueror but improving the lot of his own people as a result; and then he remembers his first love, an encounter with a cousin called Peony, the only companion his own age between much older and younger family members.

The sample ends in the midst of developing their relationship but, in contrast to the atypically languorous pace of your average contemporary sample read, it cuts off on a bit of a cliffhanger: Peony’s scream, dragging the teen-aged Wang from a sketch of her to find — what? I don’t know. Looks like John Spurling is a bit of a Dan Brown after all…


I feel a bit guilty for not picking this up right now because, while this isn’t going to be a light summer read, it is nice to see examples of more substantial literature released on ebook at an attractive price, rather than attempting to proclaim its significance by making readers pay through the nose.


I don’t read enough historical fiction, and The Ten Thousand Things strikes me as, potentially, a deep and weighty piece of writing.



= Technicalities =

Title: The Ten Thousand Things

Author: John Spurling

Publisher: Duckworth Overlook

Price: $4.58 (August 2015)


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