Book review - The Last Quarter of the Moon

A 90-year-old woman looks back on a tumultuous past governed by ritual, the laws of nature and the will of "the Spirits". Our unnamed narrator is a member of the Evenki people; an animistic, reindeer-herding, hunter tribe who live in the mountain forests of north-east China.

Chi Zijian's beautifully realised novel offers a detailed portrait of a way of life hard to imagine today. The narrator comes from a long lineage of clan chieftains and, through her recollections, we follow the decline of the Evenki. Apart from her grandson, the rest of her family have reluctantly agreed to leave their nomadic lifestyle and settle in the local town.

The natural beauty that surrounds the Evenki people is celebrated in lyrical prose while the harsher side of mountain life – disease, famine, hungry animals and sudden storms – is described in a matter-of-fact tone. Children are particularly susceptible to these inherent dangers and there are heartbreaking descriptions of their untimely deaths and burial.

The Evenki survive by their wits and their hunting skills. They find meaning in the birds, rivers, rocks and trees that surround them. Spiritually, they are guided by a Shaman who is also their healer. Cinders of fire are kept alight for decades and are passed between generations. The infirm and their possessions are transported by gentle, noble reindeer for whom "the forest is their granary… they nibble lightly so that hardly a blade of grass is harmed and what should be green remains green".

Outside, China is undergoing massive change. Over the years they learn to trade with the wily Russians, followed by the taciturn Japanese, who force the male hunters to serve in the Manchukuo Army, and the Han Chinese whose intensive tree-felling impacts on the survival of their reindeer.

Finally, the Communists corral the nomadic tribe into permanent settlements. It was surely no easy task to make this ancient, wise narrator sound convincing in English. Bruce Humes's skilful translation is pitch-perfect.

Originally published in The Indpendent