Jeanne Larsen’s Bronze Mirror is the story of Pomegranate, new maid to the Su household, brought (and bought) from her family to minister to Lady Phoenix, new wife to the head of the household. Bronze Mirror is also the story of a competition between members of the godhead — a competition caused by a tiff between The Yellow Emperor and his wife, the Silkweb Empress. There’s also the bodhisattva, who warns of the karmic debt created by the story-tellers. There’s Reedflute and his master/lover Inkstone, the young goddess- in-waiting Spinner, and the double-pupiled inventor of the Chinese written language Tsang-jieh. Then there’s the river dragon, the lord of the hill, the ten lords of hell, the wrong Redgold, the womanizing Second Master, the Horsehead Woman…hey, a larger cast of characters and plots within plots is rarely seen outside of daytime television!
In my drive to become an expert on little-known American literature based on Chinese myth, legend, and history (specialization is the key, as they told us in college), this is the third book that I’ve recently read in the field. (The other recent additions that I read were Mark Salzman’s The Laughing Sutra and Barry Hughart’s Eight Skilled Gentlemen.) Talk about three dissimilar books! Hughart’s novels are fantasy/mystery, proudly published as genre books — why, Bridge of Birds even won a genre award. The Laughing Sutra was on semi-proud display at The Strand (New York’s largest used bookstore) in the “Reviewer’s Copies” section, that purgatory created for books sufficiently unknown to the columnists for New York’s fashionable review mags, a judgment roundly carried out across the nation. And Bronze Mirror — I can’t say for sure, but if I were one to judge a book by its cover, I’d say Larsen is a card-carrying member of the literati.
Which isn’t to say her book isn’t just as good as the others, but it does carry some unnecessary baggage with it. One of the nicest things about The Laughing Sutra was the total absence of the writer; Salzman, although quite engaging in person, kept his ego free of his wordsmithing. Hughart uses the framing device of Number Ten Ox narrating the stories which we read as his memoirs. But Larsen is as much a character in Bronze Mirror as Pomegranate, The Yellow Emperor, Spinner, Lady Phoenix, or the mirror of the title itself.
Larsen (a professor of creative writing and English at Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia — and what a dead give-a-way that is, eh?) knows her stuff. Bronze Mirror is almost a history of writing styles. She ranges from the episodic Pomegranate’s Story to an encyclopedic treatise on tea in China, from the fairy tale to the seriocomic tragedy. And, before it’s all done, she’s passed you into the postmodernist era, commenting on the book from within the book. Her talent is obvious, and maybe that’s my problem with Bronze Mirror — I couldn’t escape from the realization that I was reading a book, rather than reading or hearing a story. Larsen’s previous novel was Silk Road, and the next time I feel a little introspective, maybe I’ll pick it up.
So, all-in-all, thumbs up at a forty-five degree angle on this one. If you’ve finished Salzman’s book, and you need another China fix, this may be your cup of (not Earl Grey, but Misty Summit) tea.
[Originally published in Mark V. Ziesing’s book catalogue in 1991.]