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.

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