‘This world is opening. Has opened. It’s a different world, the one I’m going to be living in, and I don’t understand my place in it.’
The Emperor of Shoes is the debut novel by American writer Spencer Wise. Published on 26th July by No Exit Press, it has been described as ‘ambitious, tightly plotted, profoundly humane and full of Yiddish humour…a sublime debut’.
This is a novel I expect will fall into the genre of Literary Fiction, dealing with the impact of the social and technological revolution on a Jewish family shoe empire, as a father and son both face up to the very complex challenges presented to them in modern day China.
I received my copy from the publisher in return for my, as ever, voluntary and unbiased review, so please do read on for my thoughts…
About the Book:
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?
The Emperor of Shoes is a novel that I knew from the outset was going to be a very quirky and unusual read for me. Spencer Wise has incorporated his own personal family history into his story, coming from a lineage of shoemakers dating back to the early shtetls in Poland. The novel is set in modern day China and gives the reader an insight into the difficulties and hardship of the working environment that exists in the shoe factories there. Alex Cohen, the main protagonist, joins his father in Guangdong, where it is the intention that he assume control over the manufacturing of their shoes. His father, a very overbearing figure, has successfully run his shoe empire for many years, but according to the old ways. The workers are oft treated very inhumanely, with Alex’s father choosing to ignore the conditions of his workforce once the endline is achieved and his profits remain high.
Alex is very taken aback by the exploitation of the workforce and the harshness of the environment. The pay is low, the work is soul-destroying and the staff are like caged animals within an extremely tough climate. Alex witnesses the corruption and is shocked by his father’s acceptance of this method of doing business. His father adopts very old workplace traditions but Alex is looking to make changes. There is the inevitable clash of two very different generations with extremely different ideas on how the factory should operate.
Spencer Wise took his research one step further by installing himself in the dormitory of a shoe factory in China so that he could get a full understanding of life there. This gave him a very hands-on understanding of the environment that he would be writing about in his novel, and with his family history in the business, the reader is given a wholly authentic experience.
As Alex sees first-hand the harshness of the workplace, he also meets Ivy. Ivy is older than Alex, yet she embodies perfection for Alex and he becomes enthralled with her, looking to spend as much time in her company as is possible. But Ivy is the antithesis of everything Alex and his father represent. She witnessed the horrors of Tiananmen Square and is now a political activist, with extreme views on the working conditions of the Chinese labour force. She abhors all that Alex’s family business represents, as can be seen in this small extract from a conversation they have…
‘”Eucalyptus? Yes. From Australia. Our government plants them everywhere. Thet grow fast and tall, but they drink all the nutrition in the soil and kill off other plants. Very bad. In English I think you call it invader species. I don’t know. Someone makes a lot of money off them.” I felt she was talking about me. I know she was..’
Alex gets caught up between his loyalty to his father and his growing love for Ivy and all that she represents. The old versus the new. With so many changes in society, Alex’s father is overwhelmed and feels threatened as he fears for the future of his empire and his position in this new world.
The Emperor of Shoes is almost an epic novel in a way I find quite difficult to articulate. While it was a little difficult to feel a strong connection with any of the characters, I feel this was more to do with my own lack of knowledge of a people, a society and of course of shoe manufacturing. I was really disturbed in reading about some of the horrendous treatment that was inflicted on the workers but at the same time I was also fascinated reading about the Chinese culture with their superstitions and beliefs.
The Emperor of Shoes is a beautiful story, a novel about love, acceptance and change. It is a story about the clashing world of the old traditional methods and the new technological and social changes that are inevitable in all societies today. Ultimately it is the story of a father and son as they struggle to maintain a relationship in an ever changing environment where two venerable and ancient heritages, Chinese and Judaism, come face-to-face with the modern world.
Fascinating. Insightful. Challenging.
Purchase Link ~ The Emperor of Shoes
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.
Website ~ http://spencerwiseauthor.com/
Twitter ~ @SpencerWise10