Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (9780312095512): St. Martin’s Press (1984)
The children of the village of Ku-fu have been struck with a mysterious illness and Number Ten Ox has enlisted the aid of Li Kao, an irascible sage with a “slight flaw in his character” to help him find a cure. Little did they know that their quest would place them in the path of the behemoth Ancestress, two shameless frauds, a miser with a heart of gold, a henpecked husband, giant invisible hands, faithless ghosts, and the corrupt Duke of Chi’in. As children’s tales begin to come to life and Number Ten Ox and Li Kao risk their lives again and again, their quest becomes intertwined with a centuries old crime that, when solved, will affect all of China and shake the realm of the gods themselves.
Hughart’s award-winning Bridge of Birds begins as a ribald and somewhat picaresque folk tale, albeit one told with a wink and nod. As the tale unwinds, it becomes more and more complex. Two-dimensional characters begin to take on flesh. Coincidence is given meaning. Stakes are raised and the likable main characters are placed in a situation in which their mortality is tested to its limits. Hughart does a masterful job in constructing his bridge, piling on layer after layer as the story unfolds to its satisfying and grand climax. The writing is top-notch and evokes the rich culture upon which the novel is based. Nevertheless, the characters are always a step distant and even the most fleshed-out characters of Number Ten Ox and Li Kao cannot be said to be fully realized. Thus the emotional center of the story never reveals itself. Many things happen, most of them entertaining. But the reader never truly cares or becomes enmeshed in this “Ancient China that Never Was”. The story is expertly crafted–it is regrettable that the same care was not taken with the characters.
Bridge of Birds is an interesting and entertaining exercise in making folklore come to life. Unfortunately, the characterizations remain flat and sap the essence from the story, ultimately making what could be a great book merely pretty good. Nevertheless, I’d still recommend this book as a diversion from Tolkeinesque, Western fantasies.