Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

bob-smallI just finished re-reading The Bridge of Birds and thoroughly enjoyed it: I first read the novel in 1985 (it was subtitled A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was). I wanted to re-read the book, but didn’t really want to root-through my storage to find the ‘mass market paperback’, so I bought a used hardback copy of The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox from Indigo (nice book, I think it was < $15 including shipping), which also contains the other two novels Barry Hughart wrote (also Master Li and Number Ten Ox stories: The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen). The title, Bridge of Birds, is apparently derived from  the Cowherd and Weaver Girl myth (Que Qiao, ‘the bridge of magpies’). Other myths, poems, epics, historical events, and a taste of Taoism, are woven into the tale.

Master Li Kao is an eminent scholar “with a slight flaw in his character,” and Number Ten Ox (aka Lu Yu) is a young man from the village of Ku-fu (he is a rather muscular young man, and he is the narrator of the tales). The children of Ox’s village are poisoned, and the only antidote is contained in the essence of the Great Root of Power. Ox and Master Li go on an epic quest, but their goal appears to be entwined with an ancient tale of intrigue and murder.

Hughart had difficulty completing the manuscript, but found inspiration while reading The Importance of Understanding by Lin Yutang (he refers to the book within the novel).

The story is presented in a whimsical style; it begins slowly, but the author skillfully paints a wonderful picture. A good summer book; relaxing, pleasant, and not intellectually challenging…a perfect escape.

Hughart had planned to write seven Master Li and Number Ten Ox tales, but he had some ‘issues’ with his publisher and only completed three.


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