The Last Quarter of the Moon, By Chi Zijian (trs by Bruce Humes) Harvill Secker £14.99

A distant life of 90 years is told in a day

A woman of the Evenki tribe, who won't reveal her name, tells her story. She tells it to the rain and fire, to the objects in her deerskin bag, to her birch-bark vase. She spends a day telling it – dawn, midday, dusk – moving at even pace through the 90 years of her life.

She and her clan live in the mountains and valleys of north-eastern China. It's a life lived in the open, moving from camp to camp; they stay for a time, until the moss in the area has been depleted and there isn't enough to feed the reindeer, then the camp is abandoned and they resettle somewhere else. Life is hard here. People leave, people ail and die; there's violence, the threat of wolves and bears – nature at its most violent. But there's no self-pity in this woman's story – life's hard, people die, that's the way it goes. It might be better tomorrow. She can't imagine living anywhere else. The closeness to natural origins matters especially – knowing that this flame came from striking stone against flint, being able to see the stars at night. Animals are to be used for hides and food ("there isn't a woman alive who doesn't like squirrel meat") but there's tenderness felt towards them, too. It's a world of reindeer and birch bark, of bonfires, shamans and spirits, omens and dances, and rituals of birth and death.

Much can change in 90 years. Even the Evenki, once so isolated, soon feel the incursions of the outside world. They're in border territory, so first it's the Russians who come over to the camp with things to barter. Then, in 1932, the tribe hears news that the Japanese have arrived; soon afterwards their men are taken away to train with the Japanese army. Next come the Soviet forces. By the end of the story, most of the hunting clan have relocated into built settlements, loggers have moved on to the mountain, the shaman's spirit headdress donated to the local folk museum.

The Last Quarter of the Moon is about a life, and a lifestyle, as distant from ours as you can imagine; and entirely different from what English-readers might have come to expect of a Chinese novel. But the story is masterfully told, with simplicity and empathy, in a direct and credible voice that not only feels unlike a translation, but unlike a fiction at all.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor