Some thirty pages into Bi Feiyu’s lovely little novel, The Moon Opera, I happened to get up for a drink and noticed, passing a mirror, that I had a huge smile on my face. I mean, literally, a grin. The kind of idiotic, toothy gaping look I would never want anyone to see on my face who was more judgmental than my cat.
As I picked the book back up again, I had to wonder. The story isn’t funny. It’s one dramatic tempest after another. So what could be giving me so much pleasure it was written all over my face? It’s the novel’s utterly serpentine narration. It’s so clever and sinuous it reduces me to grinning. As I’m approaching the halfway point of the novel now, I still don’t know where this plot is going. It keeps slipping and sliding in unexpected directions.
And what a little opera of a book this turns out to be! A modern-day, realistic melodrama about the staging of a classic fantasy, in which young Chang’e accidentally drinks from the elixir of immortality and flies to the moon. For as short as it is – 117 pages, and not long pages, either – this little book is chock full of dramatic surprises and secret passions, impulsive violence, reversals and revelations, an operatic rollercoaster about the staging of an opera.
Let me break the bad news: you’re going to have to wait till January for this one. That said, just to tease you a little and wet your appetite:
The story opens as the leader of an aging opera troupe encounters a wealthy cigarette factory boss who has fanatically followed the career of the troupe’s now forty, former-ingénue star, Yanqiu, an ice queen with a very troubled past. The factory boss has seen every production of the Moon Opera with her in it, and he’s willing to put up the money to pay for one more. Like a string of Chinese firecrackers, this sets off a chain of emotional situations, jealousies, sexual encounters, bargains and betrayals – not to mention some pretty harrowing dieting.
The situation is aggravated by Chunlai, Yanqiu’s breathtakingly lovely, prodigiously talented student, who is as close to Yanqiu as a daughter. Chunlai should really be playing the leading role instead of her teacher.
With frequent one-liners dispensing a pithy, pragmatic wisdom toward the story’s sordid situations – “But sex is so toxic it doesn’t let you quit just because you want to.” – this elegant, eight-chapter novella is a wise, gaudy little tragedy, attractively packaged by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with a cover featuring a Peking Opera face in full make-up. It’s a highly cinematic backstage drama from one of the co-writers of the movie Shanghai Triad. The never-predictable plot is tightly wound, and builds right up to the carefully orchestrated climactic opening night of the Moon Opera. It’s pure soap opera transformed into art, but once the plot has you in its grips, you won’t be getting out of your armchair until you’ve turned the last page.
And Yanqiu, the tragic ice queen – her volatile personality, her secrets, her violence – is complex enough to fill up a whole reading group discussion about that character alone!