Book Review

The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian

"our society is ending" borrriiiiing

If we do not judge a book by its cover, we may not judge it except by reading. And how do we, as finite (thankfully!), pointless, bursts of sentience make the decision about which ultimately vacuous and insignificant books we choose to read except by judging it in advance? It is the blurb, the synopsis, the publishing context, the title and the graphic and product design of a cover that sells a book to us. We judge all of these things. We must, or we run out of the near-infinite time we are doomed to exist.

Does The Last Quarter of the Moon have a truly beautiful cover, in terms of both its graphic and the physical, material quality of the book? Yes. Does a piece of contemporary Chinese fiction describing a reindeer-herding minority based in the far north of that country, on the border with Russia, who live a Sami-like lifestyle at the far opposite end of the Eurasian continental mass as they deal with the incursions of the 20th century sound like a gripping, important and engaging read? Yes. Does Vintage publish good writing? Yes.

Well, those three things didn’t matter, because the book was bad.

There is no contextualising introduction – is the writer of this novel a member of the Evenki community or are they just someone who heard of them and wrote about them? This edition doesn’t say.

There are no annotations explaining who/what/when historical figures and events mentioned in the text are, which are referred to with a tone of presumed knowledge, and these are all, like, geopolitical things rather than Evenki-things, so it doesn’t feel like something the original Chinese readership was also meant to be ignorant of.

Not much happens.

There isn’t much characterisation. Everyone lives similar, hard yet rewarding, lives, most of them are short lives and most of the deaths are as a result of the natural environment – killed by bears, wolves, dehydration, exposure (the too-much-cold kind), dying in childbirth and from wounds and illnesses that would not prove fatal with access to then-contemporary medicine.

There are accidents and tragedies and moments of beauty in harmony with the natural world, but the tragedies happen to people who don’t seem to care that much (they can always have another child to replace the dead one, there’s too many reindeer to herd to get too pissed off about accidentally getting castrated (tho there is the exception of one guy whose leg gets bitten off by a wolf who becomes obsessed with getting revenge on wolves who is, eventually, totally eaten and killed by other wolves)) and the moments of beauty seem rather taken for granted.

Maybe that, then, is the real tragedy evoked by The Last Quarter of the Moon, that once it was possible to live in a way whereby one could be inured to the beauty of the world, that one could see both the potency and wonder of the wilderness and yet become bored by it.

Maybe the fault, then, is in the translation, certainly the translator (I won’t name them as the writing in this was utterly without charm) makes this narrative feel flat even when compared to my anhedonic mind; the translator also uses the word “wee” more than once as a synonym for “small/little”, which is a distinct piece of dialect and is incredibly jarring, especially as the translator’s nationality is provided in their bio and it is not Scotland (it is America). Imagine if an Irish person translated a novel not set in London into English and they used “mandem” and “innit”, or if a Canadian used the word “cunt” like an Australian!?! The world would fall apart.

But yeah, beautiful cover. Interesting and important-seeming idea, but, ultimately, it’s fucking boring, and there’s not much else a book has to be to be to succeed other than to not be that.

Not recommended. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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