Excerpt from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ten Thousand Things

by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2015, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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But what is he doing here in winter and why does a man of his age, ancestry and education not have a better job? Wang and his wife are at odds about this. He considers that he is kept down because the Mongol rulers favour their own people, whereas she points out that others in the family have become Governors of cities and suggests that if he showed sufficient ambition and drive or even simply made friends with the right people he would soon be promoted. Wang has responded angrily by resigning his post, leaving his wife in the city and coming to spend the winter alone in his country retreat. He is not, of course, quite alone. There are three local women cooking, cleaning and washing for him, there is a gardener-handyman and there is Deng, his young personal servant, who now meets him behind the house, takes his sack and is told to fetch tea.

The light is beginning to fade on this side of the mountain. Wang's studio, the covered balcony which we have already noticed built on slender wooden piles over the little stream, is still clearly visible, but we can only dimly see Wang as he enters and sits down at a large table facing the view of lawn and river-bank. He has already changed his padded clothes for a loose robe. Now, as he contemplates the drawing on the table in front of him, he transforms himself mentally from a pseudo-peasant back into the gentleman-artist that he really is.

Deng enters with the little tray of tea and sets it on a corner of the table, well away from the sheet of clean paper with the new drawing begun that morning. Wang scarcely notices. He is already eager to correct and continue the drawing, which shows the three pine-trees on his lawn, but wonders if the light is now too poor. However, the damp, dark texture of the bark excites him and, still staring at the trees, he feels for and picks up the inkstick with his right hand and finds the inkstone with his left. Deng, standing deferentially to his right, waiting to pour the tea for him but anxious not to disturb his master's concentration, sees him suddenly start and stiffen and glance at his left hand with horror. The Emperor's jade ring is missing.

* * *

Now if anyone had still been watching from the far bank of the river he would have seen something quite alien to those calm, quiet landscapes made for contemplation and refreshment of the spirit. Out of the house in a flurry of haste and anxiety rushed Wang, Deng and the gardener, eyes down for every footprint, every mark in the thin surface of the snow. Past the pine-trees, across the lawn and over the footbridge they went. Wang even squatted down, put his head under the railing and peered into the stream in his desperation and the other two immediately imitated him, before all three got up and retraced Wang's steps back to where we first caught sight of him and beyond into further parts of the now dark wood. How to find a small circle of white jade on snowy ground in twilight? They returned at last to the house, abandoning the search until morning.

Wang hardly slept that night. He was full of regret and foreboding. Regret, because he knew that the ring was a little loose on his finger—his ancestor, the warrior-Emperor, no doubt had much larger hands—and occasionally slipped off when his hands were wet. He should have left it at home when he went out to collect firewood. Foreboding, because he felt that this loss was symbolic. Fate had given him the ring and now took it back. It was not that he thought of fate as a conscious being. It was merely the name for the secret balance in nature, for the way circumstances alter for good or bad according to forces and conditions beyond our knowledge or control. There might, for instance, be a succession of harsh winters and drought-ridden summers or of mild autumns and golden harvests, but the balance would be restored in time. His childhood had been privileged and fortunate and he was afraid he owed nature the balance.

Excerpted from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling. Copyright © 2014 by John Spurling. Excerpted by permission of Overlook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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