Today it is my great pleasure to join in the blog tour for the rather wonderful debut novel by Spencer Wise, The Emperor of Shoes which is released into the wild (well the UK) today. Happy publication day Spencer. Hope you are celebrating well. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and publisher No Exit Press for inviting me to join the tour and providing the advance copy for review. Before we hear my thoughts (although the rather wonderful comment has probably given it all away somewhat) here is what the book is about.
About the Book
From an exciting new voice in literary fiction, a transfixing story about an expatriate in southern China and his burgeoning relationship with a seamstress intent on inspiring dramatic political change.
Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in southern China, where his father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, but as he explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines, he comes to a grim realization: employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in bribes to protect the bottom line. When Alex meets a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow labourers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite?
Deftly plotted and vibrantly drawn, The Emperor of Shoes is a timely meditation on idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution, set against a vivid backdrop of social and technological change.
Every so often I like to take a break away from reading crime and delve into something that will challenge me, either emotionally or mentally. I have to say that The Emperor of Shoes is a book which took me by surprise in a very positive and most beautiful way. It made me think, it made me stop and pause. It consumed me and it made me desperate to stop and take a breath. It is a step apart from many books I have read and I have to admit that I struggle to believe this can possibly be a debut. It is simply that good.
I’ve spent a little time thinking about this review. Not as long as I would normally but longer than perhaps I ought. I’m a little scared, truth be told, as I am struggling to put my thoughts on the book into words. It is hard to describe just what it is which captivated me so. Was it the language? Certainly this is used to great effect, recreating the sense of place that is required to ground a reader in the harsh reality of a Chinese factory, or to transport them to an idyllic hillside which is a part of Ivy’s dream. Is it the story itself? Perhaps. This is a story of family, of social responsibility, of the call for change in a country defined by cold hard patriotic rigidity. Of a battle between corruption and worker rights. Of awakenings both spiritual and literal as Alex Cohen makes the journey from his Father’s whipping boy to a champion of change and new beginnings.
In reality it is all of this and more. I loved the characterisation here, the way in which the author draws upon a diverse cast to paint a sometimes stark, often moving picture of a modern China. Alex is a man who has a lot to learn but who is ready to go on this journey with the oh so spirited Ivy. I recognised the battles Alex fought, cast in his father’s shadow, the burden of responsibility never truly given over to him. He is torn between loyalty and morality and it is a hard choice that he has to make. And it is his growth which forms the majority of the novel. But then you have Ivy. Older, wiser and far more spirited, she has suffered heartbreak like you could not believe and yet is determined to continue on her quest for fair treatment for the Chinese people, a seemingly impossible fight to win.
Beyond these two you have a number of other characters, full of contrasting light and shade, who bring the story to life. Alex’s father, the eponymous ‘Emperor’, is a hard man to please, driven by greed and tradition and resistant to change or taking a chance. Then there is Gang, the face of the local Government, a man whose ambition is limited only by his success in the town and who will stop at nothing to achieve profit, even at the expense of others. They both in their own way typify the corruption which threads through the novel, the constant road block to the onward march for change and progress.
The novel brings up so many very important social issues that it really did make me think. Think about what I am really getting when I buy my cheap electronics imported from factories. very similar to the one described in this book. To what the true cost is of gadgets and every day objects I take for granted as it often goes far beyond the mere pounds and pence it costs to purchase them. Perhaps things are not as grim as they are depicted here, perhaps they are far worse. But there is an air of authenticity about this book, a true feeling of the contrast between Communism and Democracy and what happens when capitalism begins to dominate. There are poignant moments which will make your heart-break, both for Alex and Ivy and for those they try to help and there are moments of tension, where the conflict reaches a peak that will have you holding your breath wondering just how far Spencer Wise is willing to push his protagonists.
I don’t know if I have managed to do the book justice or if I have made a real hash of it instead. All I can say is that if you want a beautifully written book, something a little bit different that can both move you and make you stop and think, one in which imagery and symbolism is as strong as the characters who inhabit its world, and one which is just a damned good read, then give I would recommend you read this book. It is really quite extraordinary.
If you would like to read the book for yourselves then it is available from the following order links:
About the Author
Born in Boston, Spencer Wise is a graduate of Tufts University and the University of Texas at Austin. He is the winner of the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Florida Review and New Ohio Review. Wise teaches at Florida State University and lives in Tallahassee.
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