Imagine, book lovers, a world in which all of your books were destroyed. In this novel by Dai Sijie, set during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, two young men—sons of intellectuals— are sent to a remote village in the countryside for "re-education." They are forced to become hardworking peasants, carrying buckets of excrement and working in the mines.
Their only solace is 19-year-old Luo's gift for storytelling, which captivates the villagers. Soon the boys are given the special privilege of viewing movies and then re-enacting the stories for the villagers. On one of these trips they meet a friend from the city and discover that he has a hidden treasure: a bag of forbidden Western books.
The young men manage to get their hands on one book by Balzac and devour it, repeating the story over and over again to the villagers and to their newfound friend, the daughter of the tailor. Luo soon falls in love with the seamstress—who falls in love with his stories—, and the trio set about to steal the rest of the banned books.
They read them over and over again until they can tell the stories by heart, and they continue to captivate the village with their storytelling, without revealing the source of the stories. This stash of literature sustains the young men as they endure their re-education and has a surprising effect on the villagers.
This is a quick and highly enjoyable read and reminded me to be thankful for the shelves and shelves of books in my home!