Review of Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, “The Serpentine Band”, Clarkesworld Issue 179, August (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.
Clocking in at 18,500 words, this is a novella, and one of the longest ‘short stories’ I’ve ever read. A bit different narrative style than I have come to expect from short works of fiction, but probably only natural since it’s a longer format.
With that luxury of length comes the opportunity to create something greater and brighter, and Gu has done just that. A lovely tale full of evocative metaphors and haunting language (props to the translator too!) that combines the nature of space-time with spirituality and mythology.
The titular serpentine band is about a never-ending loop, creating the illusion of infinity. The father decides to build a garden, a gateway of sorts that follows the same structural rules of existence as the serpentine band. Both father and daughter deal with the knowledge, inferences, and possibilities very differently. They’re also brilliantly written characters. Set in a China of centuries ago, the setting, myth, and history played quite a role in shaping this story.
Having said that, this story took me a long, long while to read. It is written in such a way that you will likely end up in a similar place. The story is full of vignettes, meandering happenings, and the metaphors and haunting language I mentioned earlier. Due to this, I sometimes found that it may benefit from some editing. I still really did enjoy this slipstream novella, and if you have the time for it, or want to experience a uniquely set story – and a translated one at that – try this fantastic tale.