Fantastic and touching.
The novel is structured as a minor narrator character, who is listening to an old man tell his life story. The secondary narrator occasionally jumps in to describe the old man's current actions, but primarily this is about the old man's life.
Similar to Red Sorghum, the narrative focuses on the personal details and actions of the protagonist, but it just so happens that his life happens during some of the major cultural events in China's last century: the Chinese civil war, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.
The sentences tend to be short, like the is actually someone telling a story. It certainly makes the events told and personalities described easily digestible.
Despite the straightforward narrative, however, there is a recurring theme that for this protagonist to truly live, he must bear the burden of suffering and losing loved ones. Unlike the nihilistic tone of say the film Bicycle Thieves, the tone here is of unquestioning acceptance that this is how things are and must be, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just neutral.
After shouting, even my father-in-law himself thought he was a bit out of line. Softening his voice a bit, he said, "Don't blame me for being cruel. It's all because of that animal's wild behavior that things have gotten to this stage."
After he finished, he turned toward me and yelled, "I'm leaving Fengxia for your family. The child in Jazhen's stomach will belong to the Chen family!"
My mother stood to one side crying. Wiping away her tears, she said, "How am I supposed to make this up to the Xu family ancestors?"
Carrying a bag, Jiazhen emerged from the hut.
"Get in the carriage," my father-in-law ordered.
Jiazhen turned her head to look at me. When she got to the carriage she turned around to look at me once more, and then to look at my mother before getting into the sedan. It was then that Fengxia came running from out of nowhere. As she as she saw her mother in the wedding carriage, she wanted to go along. She was halfway in when Jiazhen's hand pushed her out.
My father-in-law waved his hand to the sedan-chair carriers, and the carriage was lifted up. Inside, Jiazhen began to wail with grief.
"Sound the drums!" my father-in-law ordered.
More than ten young men began beating and banging on drums and gongs with all their might, drowning out the sound of Jiazhen's crying. As the carriage took to the road, my father-in-law, holding his long gown,walked just as quickly as the carriage bearers. My mom with her twisted little bound feet followed pathetically behind; only when she reached the edge of the village did she stop.
It's difficult to go more into details without spoiling the novel, but To Live is a simple-to-read and touching novel that is a good starting point for learning about China's recent history.