This novel is set in a dystopian society where people are encouraged to be sewn together, although it’s a little unclear why exactly this is. There are hints that it’s got to do with some sort of disease which threatens people’s health if they are not joined to others, but it’s never really definitively set down. The changes to infrastructure necessary as a result are said to have stimulated the economy, but this is not why they are being sown together.
Even after resolving to suspend my disbelief by accepting this premise, I still found the novel a little scattered and the protagonist a bit one note – a depressed insomniac who is bereft of any humor or life.
We follow her life as she gets sewn together to a man she goes to see to help her with her insomnia. She treats this as field research for her thesis. Then the final part of her field work is to sacrifice her life so that the man, Le, will have more skin to work with – something which doesn’t end up happening in the end. In between we jump to segments of her thesis and briefly into the lives of other related people, which confuses more than it clarifies.
There was a noticeable mysticism and exaltation of university scholarship and professors which I also found a bit off-putting throughout the novel, especially towards the one-legged professor that all the students deify. The protagonist goes on about her important fieldwork, but her thesis, from what we see of it, is about conjoined twins, not about people sewn together – so we’re left wondering why she put Le through all this just for a thesis for which the experience was irrelevant. The author’s addendum to the novel made it weaker still, in my view, as she explains it to be the product of a dream; it feels as if she’s trying to divorce herself from the protagonist’s “noble” suicide/sacrifice and it left me wondering what point the novel was trying to make.
The protagonist had an adolescent Holden Caulfield quality to her, as in the conversation with her professor below:
[My translation] “Why can’t I be stingy with my smile?” I said, slightly taken aback, “Besides, I’m not here to sell smiles.”
“You must know that a person’s mouth is like the door of a house. If you don’t make it welcoming, how will people get the courage to go in? You not only have to smile often, you also have to learn how to smile the right way on the right occasions.”
“A smiling face doesn’t mean you’re happy or friendly.”
“Who said a smile represented happiness or friendliness? Smiling is a sign of politeness, like asking how people are, it’s also a basic social skill.” He looked even more shocked than me. “You’re already in third year of university and you don’t even understand such a basic thing such as this.”
But she lacks the charisma of Caulfield and you can’t help wondering why she’s so relentlessly negative.
I wondered briefly if being sewn together was a metaphor for the institution of marriage – as the proximity prevents you from really seeing the person you’re sewn to in as clear a light as when you have more distance between you and both have to give up certain aspects of their lives to be with one another. Even if this is the case, the story lacked the gravitas or human drama of a novel about marriage such as the more realist Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
I don’t think that much of this novel will stay with me and even writing this review I struggled to find something that had caught my attention while reading it. Maybe I just wasn’t the intended demographic and I can imagine that a younger audience, perhaps mired in teenage angst, might appreciate it more.
If you’ve read it and got something more out of it, you’re welcome to comment below.
I’d also love it if you tell me what you’re reading and what’s on your bookshelf at the minute.
Lai-chu Hon was born in Hong Kong in 1978 and has authored many prize-winning short stories and novels.