Sandalwood Death has moments of absurdism, humour and romance
3/5 The title of this novel, set in Boxer Rebellion-era China, refers to a horrific punishment planned for opera singer-turned-revolutionary Sun Bing, which is to be carried out by an executioner named Zhao Jia. Familial dramas complicate the matter: Sun Bing’s daughter Meiniang is married to Zhao Jia’s son, a butcher whose anxieties prompt him to take refuge in mysticism and surreal visions.
The central figures slowly close in around one another, their shifting power dynamics echoing the clash between China and Germany that helped bring about the Rebellion. And from Meiniang’s opening lines, we know that a violent end is coming to at least one of these characters.
While Sandalwood Death has moments of absurdism, humour and romance, its true subject is violence and its justification. The relationships at the story’s heart are timeless and compelling, and its evocation of collapsing morality impresses. In an afterword, Mo describes the book as ‘a step backwards in my writing career’ and expresses concern that Western audiences might not appreciate it. We think we can prove her wrong.