Sea of Ink is a novella that consists of 51 chapters in which we are provided with an overview of the life of Bada Shanren, an influential Chinese painter who lived in the 17th century. We follow Bada Shanren as he experiences the loss of power by the Ming Dynasty. From being a member of the royal family, Bada Shanren becomes a painter trying to remain unknown during the new Qing regime.
This new Peirene novella provides a comfortable and interesting reading experience. I particularly liked seeing how Bada Shanren grows into his own over the 112 pages that are part of the book. Moreover, I liked how small details of his life, the production of his paintings, and philosophical (tao?) inspired life-lessons.
What surprised me most about the book is how well the descriptions of the process of painting worked, especially as most of these descriptions were accompanied with the resulting painting one or two pages later. Usually, I struggle with very visual descriptions in books and I quickly lose my interest. But in case of Sea of Ink I actually enjoyed reading and guessing what the result would look like. It is also why I am so grateful for the inclusion of 11 pictures of Bada Shanren’s paintings.
All in all, Sea of Ink was a very pleasant read. Nevertheless, it has this elusive quality that keeps you a little removed from the story and I felt little personal involvement in the characters or story. The book was interesting, and very very beautifully written (I could quote passage after passage for you, but I think they work best discovered in the book), but it lacked something that pulled me right in. Then again, quietly beautiful books are very worthwhile reads and this one certainly covers those aspects.