I had been sent a copy of Spencer Wise’s The Emperor of Shoes by lovely Katherine Sunderland of No Exit Press in return for an honest review and then when I was asked if I would like to participate in the launch celebrations with Anne Cater‘s Random Things Tours I jumped at the chance.
The Emperor of Shoes is available for pre-order through these links.
The Emperor of Shoes
Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in southern China, where his father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, but as he explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines, he comes to a grim realization: employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in bribes to protect the bottom line. When Alex meets a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow labourers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite?
My Review of The Emperor of Shoes
Alex Cohen lives in the shadow of his overbearing father as they manufacture shoes in China.
I am going to find it hard to define The Emperor of Shoes because it is partly a love story, partly a social commentary and partly a terrifyingly truthful examination of identity at all levels from the very personal to racial and national. Wherever a reader might want to place The Emperor of Shoes, it is a prodigious example of affecting and effective writing. I can’t believe this is a debut novel and although it initially took me a short while to attune myself to the writing, once I got into its rhythms I thought it was wonderful.
The Emperor of Shoes is a remarkable book. Spencer Wise conveys with razor sharp accuracy the ways in which corruption and exploitation lead to our Western products so that I have to admit to feeling very uncomfortable at times as I read. I loved the way the book is grounded in the author’s personal knowledge through the Jewish and shoemaking elements and the social and political history of China so that there is complete and convincing authenticity. The blatant corruption of officialdom and the bullying nature of Alex’s father are truly awful, but at the same time, Spencer Wise manages to convey humour and vulnerability so that what should be quite a bleak read is tempered by love and integrity.
The quality of the prose is so good. Every sense is catered for and the variety of sentence structure creates the perfect emotion in every scene. There are apposite expletives that work in giving a vibrancy and immediacy to the story. This is particularly the case with the direct speech which I could hear totally clearly and naturally in my head as I read.
I loved the plot of The Emperor of Shoes too. It reverberates with deception at all kinds of levels making for a tense and taut narrative. I always felt as if everything could implode at any moment so that I felt as alien and anxious reading the book as Alex seems to feel in China under the control of his father. It takes incredible skill for a writer to create such a response.
I’m not really doing justice to the Emperor of Shoes. I found it complex, multilayered, totally absorbing and, sometimes, uncomfortably fascinating. I would urge you to read the book and see for yourself.
About Spencer Wise
Spencer Wise’s family has been in the shoemaking business for five generations. In addition to working at a shoe factory in South China, Wise has professional experience ranging from gutting chickens and selling ginsu knives to editorial work at Sports Illustrated and Time Out New York. His writing has appeared in Narrative magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Florida Review, and New Ohio Review. He is the recipient of the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction and a Vermont Studio Center fellowship. He has a PhD from Florida State University in creative writing and teaches at Augusta University.
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