This is a tragic love story that ends brutally. Shan Sa's novel doesn't seem to have lost much in the translation from French to English; the voices of the two protagonists are beautifully rendered, one male and one female. I was a little dubious about a female literary romance author writing a male character from a first person POV, but the Japanese soldier is believable, flawed and a little vulnerable but still mostly full of sex and violence. Still, it's the Chinese girl who really comes alive and whose inner life is explored in detail. We get her thoughts and reactions and everything she does seems understandable, but while the Japanese soldier's voice takes up just as much of the book, and we get flashbacks to some of his formative experiences (an awful lot of which have to do with sex), the inner workings of his mind are more of a mystery. It did feel as if Shan Sa tried to render each in equal detail and complexity, but ultimately found men as impenetrable as the soldier claims women to be.
Nonetheless, it's a good book with a sad but swift-moving story about a sixteen-year-old girl who plays go to escape from the world which is closing in around her. She goes to a school where some of her classmates are urging resistance against the Japanese occupiers; she falls in love with a boy who joins the resistance. Meanwhile, at the village square where she goes to play go each afternoon, she meets a mysterious stranger who sits down to play with her. This, we learn, is a Japanese soldier in disguise, sent to spy on the Chinese townspeople to try to ferret out "terrorists" among them. The two of them play go and each day the game tells them more about one another.
Since this is a war story with the two would-be lovers on opposite sides, it can't end well, and you know right from the beginning that it will be a tragedy; the only uncertainty is just what form the tragic ending will take.
Although this may be a romance, "romance" is a bit of a misnomer. There's definitely no happy-ever-after, and there is much more going on with both characters than their lovers (though there is quite a bit of sex in this book). It's more of a literary historical novel with elements of romance and tragedy and a bit of go.
The last point was probably my major disappointment; the book is written in short alternating chapters, from the girl's POV and the soldier's POV, symbolic of their alternating moves in the game, but unless there was some additional extraordinary subtlety that I just missed, go never really was much more than a plot device. I was hoping to see it fully realized as a metaphor for the story, possibly even as something that would drive the story, but if you're reading this book for go references, you'll find it pretty thin; the go game, in the end, is pretty meaningless.
It's still a pretty good (though definitely not a feel-good) story, and it's a short book with chapters that fly by, so if you like the time period, go, the general theme, or just want to sample something literary that isn't completely full of itself (Shan Sa is apparently something of a big deal in France, and her writing shows great craftsmanship without wordiness, and translates well), it's definitely worth checking out.