I didn’t know what to expect from a book with such an unusual title, but was surprised at the accomplishment of this first-time novelist and at the interesting subject.
The narrator of the book, Alex Cohen, is living in China helping his father run a shoe factory. This has been set up to take advantage of the cheap acquiescent local labour force. Conditions are hard for the workers as Alex discovers when he befriends Ivy, one of the workers. She introduces him to dissidents, and when his father proposes to hand over the running of the business to him, his loyalties are divided. The scene is set for an involving story and a satisfying conclusion.
There are so many aspects of this novel to enjoy that it’s difficult to mention them all. First of all it has an involving plot and interesting character development of the many minor characters. These include workers in the factory and corrupt local officials. It’s also very amusing with lots of Jewish humour in the interactions between Alex and his father. But they do also discuss serious issues such as the persecution of Jews and the morality of their exploitation of the workforce.
The book raises concerns about what inhuman treatment by capitalist organisations has done to the Chinese people and their ancestral way of life, and about widespread corruption in the local government. There’s much about rivalry between father and son, and generally about the importance of family ties. While Alex and his father are able to spend time together in the luxury hotel they live in, the factory workers are not allowed to return to visit their families even at times of crisis and this causes one of the most moving scenes in the book. I enjoyed reading about the details of the shoe making process (the author comes from a family of shoemakers) and also about the Chinese traditional life that Ivy introduces Alex to.
Involving, humorous and revelatory, this must be almost the perfect book!
Sue Glynn 5/5
The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise
No Exit Press 9780857302366 pbk Apr 2019