Book Review: Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama

Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama is a novel about women who worked in a silk factory in rural southern China from the 1920s to the beginnings of the Japanese invasion in the mid-1930s.

I picked up this book because I am very interested in the way silk was processed in China in pre-industrial times. When the lead character, Pei, first goes to the silk factory, the book is very good about explaining the silk work, but then it just kind of stops. Most readers probably won’t mind this since I’m sure the technical details about silk work aren’t the most interesting, but, to me personally, I would have liked to have known more. 

The book’s description says, “leading the first strike the village has ever seen, the young women use the strength of their ambition, dreams, and friendship to achieve the freedom they could never have hoped for on their own,” but I think this is misleading. I know writing a blurb is hard. Trying to sum up a novel into one sentence can really be a challenge! Honestly, though, the strike is only a footnote. Based on that blurb, one might think the strike is the highlight or the main crisis of the book which leads to a new age of women’s rights in the silk factories of China. But that isn’t what this book is about at all. 

This book is about love. Of course, in a book largely devoid of men, it is about love between women. I think the marketers of the book intentionally scrubbed any mention of love from the book’s description for fear of turning people away. “Friendship” is mentioned, but not love. Even in reviews for the book (both professional and by average readers) words like “sisterhood” and “friendship” are used, but never love. To discount the role of love in this book is a huge disservice. Considering the book was originally published in 1991, to have such loving female relationships at the core was quite radical, especially by a Chinese writer. 

Overall, this is a very enjoyable book that paints an accurate picture of life in China prior to WWII and is very delicate in handling the tender subject of love. It is a short book and an easy read so no reason not to pick it up.