Hell isn’t quite what Siew Tsin expected. Thankfully, she’s living in the right postcode, even if she has been married off to an older man. But when wealthy Junsheng brings home terracotta woman Yonghua to be his third bride, the quiet serenity of Siew Tsin’s unhappiness is disturbed by unexpected feelings.
I want to write a deep, insightful commentary on Zen Cho’s The Terracotta Bride, but I’m too busy rubbing the aching hole where my heart used to be and thinking about rereading Spirits Abroad to make me feel better.
I basically loved this from start to finish. Cho’s narrative is quiet and personable, guiding us through the circles of hell through the eyes of her young, diffident heroine. Educated by nuns in a country embracing Christianity, Siew Tsin is surprised to find that hell has demons to torture sinners and well-to-do older residents who have paid their way into a comfortable neighbourhood. Older residents can’t understand why their living relatives have stopped burning offerings for them. It’s an unapologetic theological mishmash, which I adored. As above, so below – changes sweep through every level of existence.
The tenth circle of hell is comfortable enough that its residents actively avoid reincarnation (unlike the unfortunates tortured elsewhere), and their main threat are the hordes of masterless terracotta warriors who have been hanging around for centuries. Terracotta has no soul; it cannot reincarnate, so the warriors are left to follow their worst instincts in the void left by their former king’s return to the world of the living.
This is the crux of the novel: the terracotta bride has been designed to be the perfect wife, but does she have a soul? Junsheng doesn’t care; his first wife Ling’en appears more worried that Yonghua is an offence to the gods; but Siew Tsin finds herself drawn to the terracotta woman. But can Yonghua truly feel in return? Or is their budding friendship merely another execution of Yonghua’s programmed perfection, helping her to learn new skills and keep peace in the household?
Siew Tsin’s emotional journey hauled me over the coals three ways from Sunday, which is remarkable for such compact storytelling. But I also loved Ling’en’s hints about Yonghua’s maker – it’s entirely possible this is a cross-over with the world of Sorcerer to the Crown, which just made my heart warm a bit further.
As usual with Zen Cho’s work, this is adorable, thoughtful, rich in themes and not afraid to cut you deeply when you’re not looking.
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