Fa­ther’s foot­steps too big for feck­less son

The Em­peror of Shoes

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Spencer Wise

Spencer Wise: am­bi­tious de­but No Exit Press, £16.99

MUCH OF the best post­war fic­tion by British writ­ers was set in Asia and the Mid­dle East. Think of Gra­ham Greene, Lawrence Dur­rell and Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala among many oth­ers. In re­cent years, post­colo­nial writ­ers have con­tin­ued this fas­ci­nat­ing tra­di­tion but, with a few ex­cep­tions, China has been left out.

This is all the more sur­pris­ing given the ex­tra­or­di­nary changes that have been tak­ing place in China, po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. These great changes are, how­ever, at the heart of Spencer Wise’s de­but novel. It be­gins with Alex Co­hen, an Amer­i­can Jew in his mid-20s who has some­how wound up help­ing to run a shoe fac­tory in south China.

Alex has fol­lowed his fa­ther Fe­dor to China. Fe­dor has been there since the mid-1980s, though he likes to say, “I smelled Nixon’s Bryl­creem in the Bei­jing air­port. That’s how long I’ve been here.” Fe­dor moved when the in­dus­trial North-East was turn­ing into a rust­bowl and saw that the only way to save the fam­ily busi­ness was to re­lo­cate to China, where the labour was cheaper. That’s how he be­came “the em­peror of shoes” and now he has de­cided to hand over the busi­ness to Alex.

Un­for­tu­nately, there’s a prob­lem: both fa­ther and son know Alex isn’t a busi­ness­man. He is a free spirit (Alex’s view) or a shmuck (his fa­ther’s view). One thing is for cer­tain, he is not go­ing to suc­ceed his fa­ther as the well-shod em­peror.

The con­comi­tant ten­sion be­tween the son and the over­bear­ing fa­ther is what drives the novel. The third key char­ac­ter is Alex’s Chi­nese girl­friend, Ivy, a young fac­tory worker.

But what is most in­ter­est­ing is the back­ground, the new China. A Chi­nese banker is run over while sex­ting his girl­friend on his iPhone. “You guys are in hy­per-speed,” Alex tells Ivy.

The char­ac­ters con­stantly talk about the huge new di­vide be­tween the new cities and tra­di­tional life in the coun­try­side. And there are fas­ci­nat­ing glimpses of the old ru­ral China. Ivy tells Alex how her grand­fa­ther worked for the Foot Eman­ci­pa­tion So­ci­ety, try­ing to lib­er­ate Chi­nese women with bound feet, and how he ended up be­ing shot against a wall in his own vil­lage. This is rivet­ing.

Even so, the char­ac­ter who steals the show is old man Co­hen, with his ma­chine-gun Yid­dishisms and tough no-non­sense line. He doesn’t have time for friends, he tells his son. “Work is my only friend”. And, he shouts at Alex: “This is a shoe fac­tory in the ass­hole of the world, princess.”

Alex, by com­par­i­son, is a whin­ing mil­len­nial, “Mr Heart Bleeds”, full of well-mean­ing lib­eral pieties. That may be good pol­i­tics but it doesn’t make a great char­ac­ter. When­ever his fa­ther ap­pears, the en­ergy picks up and the fun be­gins. Bet­ter still, the prose re­ally takes off: “What was his smell? Sch­maltz and cor­dovan. Old Jew.”

This is an am­bi­tious first novel, tak­ing us to a fas­ci­nat­ing un­known world, the new China where it looks as if our fu­ture is be­ing forged, a place of op­por­tu­nity and of new con­flicts

David Her­man is the JC’s se­nior fic­tion re­viewer

Re­viewed by David Her­man

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