Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in a remote village in southern China, where his father runs a family-owned shoe factory. Lost and searching, Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, absorbing the generations-old secrets of the trade from his loving but neurotic father. As Alex explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines he comes to a grim realization: employers are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in payoffs and bribes to protect the bottom line. Then he meets a seamstress named Ivy.
As Alex and Ivy grow close, Alex’s sympathies begin to shift to the Chinese workers, who labor under brutal conditions, stitching, sewing and cobbling shoes for American companies. But when Ivy’s past resurfaces, her broader goals become apparent. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow laborers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite?
‘What a haunting and intelligent debut novel. The confident and assured prose evokes easily the beauty of the complex relationships, the ugliness of the situation in the shoe factory, and the difficulty Alex faces when deciding between following his heart and his head. Just stunning’ – Louise Beech, author of How to Be Brave, The Mountain in My Shoe and Maria in the Moon
“Fresh and innovative, Spencer Wise’s The Emperor of Shoes is the latest addition to the tradition of young-man fiction that starts with Bellow and Roth… I’ve taught for more than forty years; this is the best first novel I’ve ever read.” –David Kirby, National Book Award nominated author of The House on Boulevard Street
I would like to thank the author Spencer Wise, the publisher and blog tour organiser Anne Cater for the ARC in return for an honest review.
The Emperor of Shoes is a clever and haunting tale of a young idealistic man, caught between his Jewish heritage and life under a corrupt, repressive Chinese regime.
What I found most striking about this book is the way I became cocooned within the story; constantly looking for any moment to return to Alex and his life. As a character he is a fascinating study of a young man, neither a natural radical nor an exploitive businessman like his father. He is torn between family loyalties and finding his own place in a culture very different to his own, which forces him to walk a tightrope between both worlds. Alex continually has to redefine himself as others seek to place a claim on him. As he fights to define his own needs, he is swept up in an attempt by his own workers to lay claim to a future, he as a western man had as his birthright. Alex is in many ways your average man, who like many of us, yearns for parental love and approval, but often finds himself drowning under the cloying desires of an over needy and controlling parent. I liked Alex, his imperfect nature and what some might see as a weakness to stand up and walk away from his father’s attempts to create a mirror image of himself. Because how many of us don’t spend our lives constantly negotiating fluctuating relationships with our parents? In Alex there are elements of us all and that makes him easy to love and equally, to be angry with.
The story is literature at its very best, written with a confident hand and an intrinsic understanding of human nature and motivations. Although it deals with subjects such as exploitation, it reads with an ease that bellies the intrinsic complexities of the story. There is no rushing this book, I didn’t want it to end, I wanted to stay in the stories embrace for as long as possible. Character is far more important than actions in The Emperor of Shoes, how they interact, manipulate and respond to each other needs and agenda’s. The author has created a unique love story and critique of the grim exploration of workers; yet shows the power of the human spirit to fight for equality and place the needs of the many before their own survival.
It’s a powerful read. Emotional and uplifting. I was left yearning to read more by an author with a very bright future.
About the author
Spencer Wise was born in Boston in 1977. He holds a BA from Tuft’s University, an MA in fiction from The University of Texas, where he was a James Michener Fellow, and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University
Wise is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he is at work on his second novel, Holderness.