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Dazzling and disappointing: a brilliant study of gender and destiny needs more novel and less discourse.

The Walking Boy Lydia Kwa Key Porter Books 309 pages, hardcover ISBN 1552636933

Set in eighth-century China, in the ancient capital of the Tang dynasty, The Walking Boy opens with a promising array of historical and fictional characters: Wu Zhao, one of the most remarkable women in Chinese history, who, not content to be empress, deposed her son and declared herself emperor; her courtiers both loyal and treacherous; a Buddhist monk and his former lover, a gifted artisan; and, finally, the walking boy himself, a 16-year-old hermaphrodite sent on a journey that will bring these stories together.

As Lydia Kwa, author of The Colours of Heroines, a collection of poetry, and the novel This Place Called Absence, works her way through these narrative strands, we are treated to exquisite detail, from the grandly named palace pavilions to "five peeled, pitted lychees gleaming in a silver bowl of chilled water." The strength of the novel is in these riches, and in the ironies they illuminate: characters put on silk tunics in delicate colours to plot the downfall of the emperor, who drinks an elixir of immortality made from cinnabar, gold and arsenic, while her servant, who has every reason to hate her, must show her loyalty even in the way she sips her tea.

But The Walking Boy seems less a window on a distant world than a study of themes. There is the theme of the mind and its tendency to rewrite its deepest desires and fears as dreams and then call these dreams destiny. Characters, propelled by their dreams to act, act to make their dreams manifest. Thirty-six years before Baoshi, our walking boy, sets out, a dream caused a monk to flee his position at court without saying goodbye to his lover. Now, another dream causes him to send his young apprentice out in search of his lost, secret love.

For her entire life, Wu Zhao has held fast to the prophecy made at her birth that she would rule a vast empire. Her belief in this destiny propels her up through the ranks of concubines, allows her to survive exile in a convent, and fuels her return to court and ascent to the throne. Looking back, she has to wonder: what life would she have lived had she never heard the prophecy in the first place?

The Walking Boy is also a study in gender and the mechanics of power. Knowing, like Macbeth, that "to be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus," Wu Zhao ruthlessly eliminates her enemies and detractors--even her own grandchildren--in order to remain "safely thus." Her hold on power is made more difficult by the fact that she is a woman. In her diary she notes bitterly that emperors have the number of their concubines dutifully recorded, while her lovers--two young half-brothers--cause outraged gossip in the palace. Her courtiers plot against her, her servants mock her, and she knows the only way to preserve her story is to tell it herself: "The men will be writing their own version of my reign in the Veritable Record when I am gone. It matters greatly to me that this Palace Diary exists as a statement in support of women like us," she tells her secretary, "women who face immense obstacles against gaining power in the world of men."

The Walking Boy is a study of gender in all its crossings and complexity. Baoshi, both male and female, Two and Not-Two, struggles to embrace his whole self and finds acceptance among the jogappas, a transgendered community of dancers. The imperial secretary dresses as a man when she travels, sleeps with the emperor's nephew to ensure her position and falls in love with a woman. And the city of Chang'an itself is teeming with religions and ethnicities. In a highly structured, highly ritualized world, where a person's place and duty are fixed and binding, the characters hold multiplicities within themselves, and are free to move along the continuum of self and sexual identity.

But while The Walking Boy succeeds as a study, it is less successful as a novel. Too often, the mechanics--the ropes and steel rods that hold a novel together beneath its sumptuous details--show through. First, there is the problem of conveying information in a work of historical fiction. Without an omniscient narrator, we must get everything from the characters themselves, and frequently these characters seem to be spouting information. A sculptor, looking at the statues in a cave, smiles because "they bear witness to the influence of Indian art from the Gandhara region. How interesting that the spread of Buddhism to Zhongguo was accompanied by such an emphasis on the body's insistent pulse." A member of the tiny group plotting to overthrow the emperor refers to "the reinstatement of Zhang Jianzhi, the Tang loyalist, at court," even though it is unlikely anyone in the room needs a reminder of the loyalty of the person they are plotting to restore to power.

It is not just this telling of background information that is problematic. In a novel with so many stories to unfold and so many ideas to work in, the characters must hand their passions to us as if they were packets of data. One of these packets belongs to the monk who leaves his lover behind. We have only his word that his love was deep, his dream terrible, the threat to his life real, but his words are not enough for us to feel anything. Wu Zhao's decision to have two enemies tortured and killed is another example: she tells of her determined rise to power, her humiliation at the hands of a former empress and concubine, and her need to teach these enemies a lesson, but presenting such a complex personal and political history in a few pages reduces it to a recitation of facts, and we are not engaged in either her decision or the consequences.

This need to explain also weighs down the storyline. When Baoshi gets closer to the palace and is kidnapped by one of the emperor's consorts, the plot becomes dazzling, compelling, but then it fizzles out. The pulse of this story is sacrificed to the numerous other stories that must be told. Baoshi must find his master's former lover and accept himself; his master must reassess his decision of long ago to leave his lover; the lover must come to terms with his past while carving statues of the Buddha in the Magoa caves; the imperial secretary must reconcile herself to her position, worry about her mother, and save the walking boy while helping the emperor's daughter and nephew plot a coup. Two ghosts must be exorcized, a mystery solved, and all loose ends tied up. It is not that these stories do not fit together; there are just too many of them to be developed in a richly satisfying way.

Admirable themes and remarkable details do not allow us to wrap a story around ourselves, or disappear into living, breathing characters, or lose ourselves in the insistent "and-then" of the story. In the end, The Walking Boy feels forced: a novel of too many ideas and not nearly enough novel.

Jamie Zeppa is the author of Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (Random House, 2000). She teaches English at Seneca College in Toronto.
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Title Annotation:The Walking Boy
Author:Zeppa, Jamie
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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