The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
This intriguing story is written in an unconventional manner, which I found bewildering at first. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because it eventually becomes clear that the underlying message is about women who endure hardship and triumph over adversity.
It is set in a culture similar to ancient China, and it tells the story of a woman, In-yo, who comes from the far north for a political marriage in the south. Her people have been defeated in war and her role is to produce an heir that will bring the north and south together.
The reader learns of her history through the voice of Rabbit, who had been her handmaiden. She is telling this story to a cleric, Chih (they/them), and their hoopoe, Almost Brilliant. Chih had been on a journey when they met Rabbit and stayed to hear the story and to catalogue a collection of artifacts that In-yo had left on the property.
There is a lot to like in this novella, but the reader is not given the gems easily. I had to be patient to figure out the implications of the fragments of the history I was being told. At the same time, I was trying to weave together the threads of all the inferences.
This is made easier by some memorable insights about life and some succinct words of wisdom. Here are a few examples, but there are many more:
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”
“The war was won by silenced and nameless women.”
“It was beautiful, but every stitch bites into her history, the deaths she left behind, and the home she could not refer to.”
I did not enjoy this book for the first few chapters, but now I want to read it again. It has given me a lot to think about and also to inspire me.