The Dance of the Spirits might be referred to as a love story, and indeed an unlikely relationship between an American soldier and a Chinese female medic is an important component of the story, but the heart of the story comes from the development of the book’s central character, Jasmine, a Chinese girl from a privileged background whose life is turned upside down and inside out, first due to her father’s repeated infidelities, then from the Communist revolution that first impoverishes her family and then practically enslaves her by compelling Jasmine to serve in the Korean War.
Jasmine’s backstory fills most of the first two-thirds of the novel. The book is always well-written and always interesting, and the narrative serves to make her both a strong character and sympathetic. Jasmine’s story is a particularly compelling means of depicting the turmoil and tragedy brought about by the revolution, as one young woman’s tribulations are used to illustrate how a society was transformed and a culture was radically altered.
In contrast, her paramour, the American soldier Wesley, plays more of a supporting role, and they barely have twenty pages together. Wesley has some wonderful scenes, particularly the one where he disrupts an attempted brainwashing session by the Communist Chinese and turns it into a lecture about Christian values and the glories of traditional Chinese culture. Wesley is a really interesting and likeable character, but his portions of the book are dwarfed by Jasmine’s. The book’s main drawback is the absence of a backstory for Wesley. After all, Jasmine’s backstory does a terrific job of explaining how she became the woman she is, as her treatment by her father and his concubines shaped her attitudes and independence. It would have been interesting to see a bit of Wesley’s backstory in America, so we could understand how he became a man who could survive the physical and mental horrors of a prisoner of war camp.
The last pages of the book are a bit rushed, as they flash forward and explain the fates of the main characters a bit more quickly than necessary. An entire chapter isn’t necessary, but a couple of additional pages of concise writing could have done much to explain how a seemingly difficult situation could have been thoroughly resolved.
These minor quibbles underscore the fact that this is a very good book that ought to be just a little bit longer. The Dance of the Spirits is a really enjoyable character study about a woman attempting to survive in a very dangerous world.
I give this book three out of four stars.
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