The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi – #MBI2018 Review

If you have pivoted to video, check out my rambling on this book here.

The Stolen Bicycle

Those who have followed me for a long time know that I’m an ebook (and audio book) advocate. While I acknowledge that the brain processes words differently depending on the source, I maintain that it’s the words, not the format, that matter most when it comes to reading. (And yes, I’m familiar with “the medium is the message”.)

Arguments against reading on screens, and hand-wringing about whether ebooks or audio books “count” as reading, tend to come from a fairly out-of-touch, even ableist place. Also, I don’t like the smell of old books. There, I said it.

HOWEVER. Once in a while there comes a book that’s so attractive in print, that even I question my choices. I bought the ebook edition of The Stolen Bicycle because the print isn’t out in Canada till April 20 (see my previous post for more #MBI2018 options in Canada). Then, I saw what the print edition looks like:

I mean, look at that cover. You don’t get to see the spine or back cover with a ebook.

The story can be explained, quite simply, as one man’s quest to find a bicycle. And less directly, to find this dad, who walked out on his family twenty years ago. And even less directly, to find the history of his family and his country, Taiwan. A historical epic that follows a family through personal tragedy, social upheaval, and war? As the kids say, “I’m here for it”. But this is no typical sweeping epic.

We’ve got at least two frames: a big one involving a child in war time, that really only comes into play at the very beginning and very end, and the frame involving our narrator. We don’t learn his first name. His quest to find his dad’s bike, and obsession with bikes in general, compels him to seek out all sorts of people and gather their stories.

We’ve also go several story-within-a-story elements. The narrator is the kind of guy people open up to – they don’t only tell him the relevant info about the bike, they go off on huge tangents. Through these stories, the reader learns about the art of butterfly collages, military uses of both bikes and elephants, the effects of war on zoo animals and lots more. These stories get layered, so we might be hearing the narrator recount another character as he or she remembers a story told to them long ago.

The complexity of the narrative made me want to flip back and forth, to reorient myself, which is difficult (but not impossible) on a Kindle. I got lost a couple of times, struggling to remember who was speaking, and how their story connected back to the main narrative. In the absences of pages to flip back through, I had to trust the author to put the pieces together later.

Thankfully, he did. The threads came together beautifully, in a way that was satisfying but not too convenient, and happy but not too sentimental.

The ending brought me around to the ebook experience.  As I “closed” the book (which I’ll admit, is extremely unsatisfying on an ereader), I was glad I had been forced to follow the threads in one direction, to experience the narrator’s memories and impressions as he did, to only “flip back” when he decided to reminisce. It helped me feel close to him, unnamed and closed off as he was.

I must issue one major ebook caveat, though. I’m not sure if this is a Kindle thing, but my copy skipped right from the title page to the prologue, skipping two short sections, “Parts of the Bicycle” and “One Hundred Years in Taipei”, both of which would have been VERY helpful. If you don’t have an intimate knowledge of bicycle mechanics or Taiwan’s history, you’ll want to read them too. Use to “GO TO” menu in Kindle to make sure you don’t miss these parts.

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Things that would have been good to know

If you North Americans want to hold out till April 20 and grab the paper copy, I get it. But an ebook (and occasional scan of Instagram) is satisfying in its own way. Either way, do pick this one up. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding books I’ve read this year.

(Did I mention that Wu Ming-Yi did all the illustrations as well? Here’s one more Instagram to tide you over.)

Check out more excellent reviews:
Knowledge Lost
Tony’s Reading List
Dolce Bellezza

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4 comments

  1. Bellezza

    This is one book that I, too, wish I had read in paper. The digital was practical and accessible (don’t think the MBIP long listed books were any more accessible in the States!), but I agree that the cover and the illustrations/diagrams are not to be missed. Great review of a complicated, it wonderful book.

  2. Didi

    This one was on my TBR and yes the physical copy is gorgeous. Having seen this I may wait to get a paper copy for full enjoyment. Thanks for this helpful review!

  3. Harry Miller

    I enjoyed the book and your review.

    I had borrowed the print copy via my school’s inter-library loan. Finding the book as attractive as you did, I felt it necessary to remove the ILL band (the one that says ‘DO NOT REMOVE THIS BAND’) from the cover before I read it.

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