John Spurling's The Ten Thousand Things is reviewed by Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal:
John Spurling's enchanting "The Ten Thousand Things" (Overlook Duckworth, 354 pages, $27.95) takes place in 14th-century China, during the final years of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty. In that time, as the emperor's power dwindled, China was plunged into a protracted civil war between competing bandits and warlords.
The novel's cultured eyewitness to these devastations is the gentleman painter Wang Meng —a real figure (one of his landscapes is reproduced on the book's frontispiece). Mr. Spurling imagines him as a man caught between two worlds, a low-level official in the government whose sympathies incline toward the homegrown insurgents. Temperamentally, he is torn between a sense of social obligation and a deeper desire to retreat into a Taoist contemplation of nature and the practice of painting.
His reflections often turn on the ambivalent value of art during times of unrest. Assessing a painting of scholars enjoying a peaceful summer day, he thinks,
There was something false about it, of course, as the Empire disintegrated round them, armies drove each other to and fro, people died in their thousands and towns were sacked. But there was also something true, for the mountains and rivers continued to stand and flow, the seasons to change and the scholars very frequently to enjoy summer days in their houses.
Events contrive to draw Wang out of the quiet of his studio, and we follow his unsettled travels across China. He befriends other itinerant painters, falls in love with a redoubtable bandit-chieftain called the "White Tigress" and forms a troubled relationship with the ruthless warrior who will ultimately win the civil war and establish the Ming Dynasty. Mr. Spurling traverses these episodes without a shred of the grandiosity or portentousness often found in historical fiction. Wang's fascinating life seems to flow ahead with the grace of a leaf on a stream. He is always richly attentive to the state of the world—and what he philosophically calls its "mere tangle of circumstances"—as it passes by.