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1971: Mao's cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to 're-education' camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand. The boys' true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.
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UK Kirkus review
As its title implies, this is almost an oriental fairytale, set in the unlikely period of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Two teenage youths, both sons of respectable medical families, well-educated and therefore suspected of decadence, are removed from their families and despatched up country for ideological re-education i.e. juvenile boot camp. There, near a cottage belonging to a peasant whose daughter they have befriended, the boys discover a secret cache of the world's literature: not just the Balzac of the title, but Dickens, Gogol, Kipling, Rousseau and lots more. One of the boys is fortunate enough to strike up an affair with the beautiful young seamstress, while his friend regales her father with the thrilling adventures of the Count of Monte Cristo he has just read. The book sparkles with unexpected wit, keeping a deft, light touch even in the occasional hair-raising scenes, such as the occasion when the boys wreak some revenge on the bullying village headman. The latter, afflicted with raging toothache, demands that the youths (with their quasi-medical backgrounds) should clean and fill his rotted molar. They agree with instant relish, and the gleeful sadism with which they punish the old ignoramus is a joy to read. The author himself was re-educated in a similar manner in his youth; it is tempting to feel he has drawn heavily from his experiences here! It would be betraying a secret to reveal the sour-sweet end of this enchanting fable of young love where the East is Red. The book can be devoured at a sitting, but it sticks in the head for a very long time. (Kirkus UK)
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