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?
I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of Alex Cohen, a young American living in China, where his father runs a shoe factory which Alex finds himself running for him. Alex is young enough to question the status quo when he arives and realises that the ethics of this factory are somewhat questionable and the ethical problems go much deeper than he might initially have suspected. This is definitely a novel to make you think and I frequently had to put it down To mull over some of the ideas in it. Alex is put into several challenging scenarios and it made me think hard about what I myself might have done in the circumstances.
In this factory, the workers are clearly being exploited, any laws that actually do exist are corrupt and only intermittently applied and Alex uncovers the fact that his dad has been using bribery to make sure that his interests are protected. The next time you buy a pair of summer sandals for a fiver, I challenge you not to think about the workers in this book, after reading it for yourself. It’s not that it makes for unpalatable reading, just that it rattles you out of the state of convenient amnesia that we can all suffer from at times. I found myself really thinking hard about the ways that we can all turn a blind eye to things that might not suit our narrative and Alex isn’t alone in finding out that it’s more complicated to stand up for what you believe in than you might think.
When Alex starts to find a mysterious and compelling attraction for a seamstress called Ivy, his complicated feelings start to grow even more discomfiting. She is linked to a pro-democratic Chinese party, and is working undercover to spread news about the way that their rights re being exploited to the other workers. Alex is torn between his own feelings of discomfort and moral unease and his loyalty to his father’s legacy as this compelling novel unfolds.
I was reading this beautifully crafted novel in a gorgeous valley in the Cotswolds, but I could definitely feel myself being transported to a hot and dusty factory through the power of Spencer Wise’s prose. I found Alex an interesting character and whilst I was fascinted by the situation that he found hinself in, I found myself looking at him almost at arms length and I wondered if this was part of the novel’s cleverness: Alex definitely finds it hard to connect with people and this sense of distance was something I felt as I read about his experiences and doubts in this novel.
The Emperor Of Shoes is a well crafted and thought provoking read which definintely held my interest as we see Alex being tested in almost every sense – professional ties, ethical ties, family ties and emotional ties are all pulling him in different directions and its hard at times to watch the way that Alex’s situation unfolds. If you want to know how he resolves this unenviable situation, you’ll have to read it for yourself...
Writer On The Shelf
Spencer Wise was born in Boston in 1977. He holds a BA from Tufts University, an MA in fiction from The University of Texas, where he was a James Michener Fellow, and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Wise is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he is at work on his second novel, Holderness.