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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Poornima Apte

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"It's not really happening. It's a trick of the eyes."

That was how he felt too about the way they'd suddenly fallen in love. He remembered nothing more about the rest of that day, how they walked home—they must have walked, surely, not floated?—except the feeling of continuing unreality, of having entered a new time in which he saw everything with her eyes as well as his own, in which the effect of their sudden waterfall, as it were, transmitted itself to the whole of nature round them.

They secretly climbed the wall and went to the waterfall again another day, this time descending some way beside it, so that Wang could draw it and the rock on which they'd sat that first day. Peony became impatient after a while and wandered away to see if she could climb right to the bottom. The bank became precipitous and the undergrowth very dense and tangled over the rocks and Wang felt worried by her disappearance, but he wanted to finish his drawing and he knew it was useless to try to deter her from taking risks. Suddenly, from somewhere below, he heard her scream. Stuffing his drawing and his inkstone and brush into his bag—even in such an emergency making sure he didn't lose his work—he scrambled down in mounting panic, tearing himself on thorns and rocks, pouring sweat, heart and brain racing, limbs even more ungainly and uncontrollable than usual.

He found her at the bottom of an enormous boulder, her back against it, confronting a huge ape-like creature only a foot or so away from her. Wang shouted violently to distract the creature's attention and kept on scrambling down, but catching his foot in something slid and landed painfully on his bottom on the same small platform of earth as Peony and the ape.

"No harm, no harm," it said, shaking its head vigorously and approaching Wang with open hands. "I thought she would slip like you."

It was not, after all, an ape, but a short, heavy man of about forty, with wild black hair and beard, coarse features, eyes small and bloodshot, and dressed in torn, dirty clothes. From where Wang lay, sprawled on the ground, the man's feet in ancient, grimy sandals seemed particularly monstrous.

"You're both too young to be out alone in this dangerous place," he said. "What are you doing here?"

Perhaps he had only been trying to prevent her falling—the earth platform was directly above the waterfall and if she had slid down the boulder directly to the point where she was standing, could easily have plunged straight over. Still, she had screamed, she told Wang afterwards, because she thought he meant to attack her.

"I'm afraid you're being very naughty," the man said, perhaps deliberately using that childish word to assert his own seniority and respectability, insinuating too that if there was any sexual truancy involved, it was theirs. "Your parents would be horrified if they knew what you were playing at."

"I don't think so," Wang said, as coolly as he could, picking himself up with all his bruises and cuts beginning to hurt at once. "We've been here before and I only came to draw the waterfall."

"To draw it? Can you draw well?"

"Quite well," Wang said, modestly but firmly.

"Where is your drawing?" Wang defiantly opened his bag and took out the drawing, now badly crumpled.

"Let's see!" holding out his hand, the wrist covered with black hair.

Reluctantly, Wang gave him the drawing. He glanced at it cursorily, the way one looks for politeness' sake but without expecting anything at a child's scribble, then looked again and going to the smoothest part of the boulder, laid the drawing against it and smoothed it out.

"Yes," he said, after examining it carefully, "you do draw well. You are an artist. So am I. The difference is that you are imitating some old master and I am original. Would you like to see my work?"

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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