Desert Isle Keeper
Capturing the Silken Thief
There’s a line in Jeannie Lin’s novella, Capturing the Silken Thief, that evokes the effortless, lyrical beauty of her tale. A man – a scholar – and a woman – a musician – meet at night. Ms. Lin writes, “The moon was high and round, with that faint harvest gleam that marked it as a night for recitations of poetry.” The line, like the novella, is self-contained and, at the same time, inviting. A reader wonders what might happen under such a moon and longs to read more.
The novella so often disappoints. Either its story is too thin or its premise unfulfilled. Ms. Lin’s lovely little work has neither limitation. In 75 pages, she presents a Chinese romance, a love story told in its entirety, from first glance to final promise. Her lovers are limned clearly — we know their past, present, and future. Her heroine, the pipa player Jia, is as real a woman as I’ve ever encountered in the pages of historical romance. She’s twenty-three, deeply in debt, smart, talented, and proud. She’s a realist who dreams, schemes, and works for a future where she could live a simple life she’d be able to control. The hero, Cheng, is just as wonderfully rendered. He’s from a poor rural family, able to study in the capital only because of the largess of a local magistrate back home. Like Jia, he is determined to better himself. Together, the two are achingly perfect.
They meet because Jia has paid the last of her coin to have street thugs rob Cheng. She has mistaken him for another scholar, a wealthy rude bore, who stole a valuable book from the Lotus Pavilion, the most luxurious gathering place in the city. Jia wants this book so that she may sell it and buy her financial freedom. The street thugs steal Cheng’s books and work, valuable beyond measure to him, and bring them to Jia. Jia realizes Cheng doesn’t have what she seeks; she finds him and offers him back his books for his help in finding the volume she desires. Cheng sees in Jia — whom he thinks is named Rose — something he desires. He agrees to help her, eager to pursue the passion he feels spark between them.
I don’t want to share much more of what’s to be found in Capturing the Silken Thief. The love story between Cheng and Jia is flawlessly presented — each remark, touch, and truth they share is exactly what it should be. The setting, the city of Changan during the era of the Tang Dynasty, is vividly portrayed, and the story behind the journal is remarkably moving given the brevity of its presentation.
I’ve read Capturing the Silken Thief three times now. Each reading has left me more impressed with Ms. Lin’s work. The Tang Dynasty is famous for its landscape paintings called shanshui. These works of art are sparse yet evocative, not representations but rather created to convey an experience of a feeling or scene. This novella is a storybook shanshui — not a literal tale but rather a fabulous foreign fable presented in less than 18,000 words.