The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

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I doubt I can say anything new or different about this beautiful book, I can only add my voice to those already exclaiming over its clever, delicate storytelling. And it was just the loveliest book. Reading it was like unearthing treasure.

There is something incredibly appealing about a story being told through everyday objects and so I love that this novella’s segments often begin with a handful of items uncovered by the historian-cleric Chih, and their hoopoe companion Almost Brilliant as they catalogue the contents of Thriving Fortune, once home to the exiled Empress In-yo. Using this device Vo is able to tell a story at once intimate and huge. Each object gives a small glimpse into the life of the Empress-in-exile and her handmaiden Rabbit, and the two women’s roles in the eventual fate of the empire.


“I thought it was just trash.”

“It is trash,” she said shortly, “but if you want to understand people who have gone, that’s what you look at, isn’t it? Their offal. Their leavings.”


Of course, the remains at Thriving Fortune can only give up their secrets because Rabbit, now an old woman, is still there, remembering. And without Chih and Almost Brilliant to record her memories, this thin slice of the Empire’s history could easily have been lost. Even having been told, it is a story so far from the official history that it may not ever become common knowledge. This kind of thing gives me a funny feeling – it’s history from the other side, if that makes sense – not official, state-approved history, but smaller, more personal history, about people and feelings. And I’ve said ‘smaller’ there, but really, all those small stories add up to something so much larger than any official history could ever be. It’s precious, and it makes my chest buzz with a kind of strange glee.

The world itself is a marvel I wanted to sink into. It is a world where a brown carp can transform into a calico dragon, where hoopoes have long and perfect memories, where imperial mages can keep winter at bay and there are mammoths in the north. A place where everything is imbued with meaning and there are stories within stories. It’s a world of lavishly decorated robes, rooms and possessions, but also one in which a peasant girl is given away by her parents in place of five containers of dye. It is by turns gorgeous and vicious.

And Vo’s writing is just as beautiful. She doesn’t waste words and there’s a satisfying rhythm to her writing. This is the kind of story that wants to be read aloud. It has the shape and feel of a bedtime story with bite, one to be told with the lights off and left to slowly sink into the subconscious while sleeping.

I loved everything about it. I suppose that’s pretty obvious. I love that it gives two silenced women a voice. I love its nested approach to telling its tale. I love its beauty and its anger. I love that it gets underneath, around and behind the official version of the world, and blows it up. I love Rabbit and In-yo, and Chih and Almost Brilliant. I love that it made me cry because that always means that a book’s got at the truth of something for me.

So, yeah, I loved it. (In case I hadn’t made that abundantly clear already).



Some random waffle about ebooks:

This was my first ebook. I had it on my list, saw it on the library’s Libby app, and, knowing it was only short, I thought I’d try it out. I don’t have an ereader, so I read it on my phone. I was surprised at how easy it was to get lost in the story despite it being on a screen instead of a page (obviously it helped that it was sumptuous from beginning to end), and the only strangeness to reading in this way was that occasionally, after getting up to get a drink, say, I’d be looking for the book on the sofa so I could carry on reading because I forgot it was on my phone.


It hasn’t made me want to dash out and buy an ereader. I just don’t need one. I don’t travel much and I don’t read particularly fast. But it makes me happy to think that I can read books this way too sometimes, if I have no other way of getting hold of them. Because any way of reading a book is better than no book – right?



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