The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai

Pantheon. Jan. 2019. 320p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781524747411. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781524747428. LIT
OrangeReviewStarAward-winning novelist and poet Jin (War TrashWaiting) offers a glimpse into the life of one of China's most celebrated poets: Li Bai (aka Li Po or Li Bo). Bai (700–62 CE) is an almost legendary figure; so beloved that he is said to have been an immortal banished to earth (for reckless behavior). With little more than legends and the poet's own words, Jin creates a kind of hagiography that is both scholarly and emotionally engaging. Bai's weakness for drink and his struggles with money haunt this tale, as does his failure to secure a position in the royal court. One senses that his was a life lived always in the shadow of want. In the end, we are left with two conflicting visions: the great artist who squandered opportunities and drank himself to death, and the lore of a dreamer who disappeared one night in search of the moon's embrace. Though Jin makes an admirable stab at having it both ways, much of what he presents as fact feels merely speculative and ultimately the mythology holds this portrait together.
VERDICT Libraries building Chinese literature collections will love this book. Essential for academic libraries and recommended for large poetry holdings. [See Prepub Alert, 7/30/18.]—Herman Sutter, St. Agnes Acad., Houston
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