20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, China, Hyeonseo Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, William Collins

‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; William Collins; 320 pages; 2016.

Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee is an inspiring and harrowing true life story about escaping a brutal regime and then having the courage to get your family out too.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea. She came from a relatively comfortable family. Her father was in the military and her mother smuggled goods from across the Chinese border and made a living selling them, so there was always food on the table — even during the Great Famine, where one million North Koreans died of starvation — and new clothes to wear.

But not long after Hyeonseo’s father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

A perilous search for freedom

The book charts Hyeonseo’s journey to freedom. It follows her life as an illegal immigrant in China, where she spent 10 years working low-level jobs, until she was able to get herself to South Korea, where she claimed asylum.

But throughout this time, always looking over her shoulder, changing her name (yes, seven times), learning Mandarin to fit in, buying a fake ID and keeping one step ahead of the authorities, she was constantly aware that she had left her mother and younger brother behind, whom she missed terribly. She vowed to get her mother out (her brother was engaged to be married, so it was more complicated to help him), but through a bizarre set of circumstances managed to smuggle both of them out.

Their perilous 2,000 mile journey from North Korea to Vietnam, where they planned to claim asylum in the South Korean embassy, was supposed to take around a week: it took more than six months and involved all kinds of dangers, including immersion in the shady world of people smugglers, brokers and corrupt officials.

It didn’t help that Vietnam had supposedly turned hostile to helping North Koreans and a last-minute diversion to Laos put the whole escape plan at risk. There was the ever-present threat of deportation back to North Korea, where imprisonment or public execution awaited.

A fabulous adventure story

The Girl with Seven Names is a truly gripping read. It has the air of a fabulous adventure story; sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s true because so many horrendous things happen along the way. But Hyeonseo’s unwavering faith in herself, in helping her mother and of forging a new life in a new culture is inspiring.

And while her story highlights the worst of humanity — the repressive and truly cruel nature of the North Korean state, the immorality of the people smugglers and the gangs determined to make a buck out of other people’s misery — it also presents a refreshing look at the kindness of others, for it is only through the random act of one man — a Westerner in Laos — that Hyeonseo was able to get her family to South Korea because he gave her the money she needed exactly when she needed it.

My most basic assumptions about human nature were being overturned. In North Korea I’d learned from my mother that to trust anyone outside the family was risky and dangerous. In China I’d lived by cunning since I was a teenager, lying to hide the truth of my identity in order to survive. On the only occasion I’d trusted people I’d got into a world of trouble with the Shenyang police. Not only did I believe that humans were selfish and base, I also knew that plenty of them were actually bad – content to destroy lives for their own gain. I’d seen Korean-Chinese expose North Korean escapees to the police in return for money. I’d known people who’d been trafficked by other humans as if they were livestock. That world was familiar to me. All my life, random acts of kindness had been so rare that they’d stick in my memory, and I’d think: how strange. What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not the norm. Dick had treated me as if I were his family, or an old friend. Even now, I do not fully grasp his motivation. But from the day I met him the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people. This seemed so natural, and yet I’d never felt it before.

Hyesonseo now campaigns for North Korean human rights and refugee issues. You can see a TED talk she gave in 2013 about her story:

If you liked this, you might also like:

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick:  an award-winning book, probably the best about what it is like to live in North Korea, that tells the individual stories of six people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year after reading this piece by Hyeonseo Lee on the Five Books website.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 186 pages; 2009.

I do love a good W. Somerset Maugham novel and The Painted Veil, first published in 1925, is regarded as one of his best.

The story is largely set in Hong Kong, before shifting to mainland China, and centres on a troubled marriage between two young Brits who are vastly different in personality, temperament and upbringing.

Walter Fane is a bacteriologist who is tightly buttoned up, the type of man who can’t really talk to others much less express his emotions, but he’s in love with his new wife, Kitty, even though he never quite tells her of his feelings.

Kitty Garstin, meanwhile, is extroverted but shallow and self-centred. She rushes into marriage with Walter, not because she’s in love, but because she’s desperate to escape her domineering mother and fears being “left on the shelf”, aged 25. She’s already turned down dozens of marriage proposals and is worried her younger sister will upstage her by marrying first.

The marriage between Walter and Kitty, of course, is a mistake. In Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed, cracks begin to appear in their relationship, and Kitty begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, who is married with two young children.

It is when Walter discovers his wife’s adultery that the novel comes into its own.

Unexpected reaction

Walter does not react the way one would expect. While outwardly dull and seeming to lack emotion, it appears that he is an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to manipulate people to his own ends.

He issues an ultimatum: if Kitty can get Charles to divorce his wife, then she is free to remarry; or she can come with Walter to mainland China where he has agreed to take charge of a cholera outbreak, putting both their lives at risk.

Of course, Charles turns out to be a coward and won’t divorce his wife, leaving Kitty with only one option: to accompany the husband she has wronged into a potential deathtrap.

Portrait of a cruel marriage

The Painted Veil is a rather good example of Maugham’s penchant for writing about cruel marriages and people tortured by love (or an absence of love). His technique is rather old-fashioned. The narrative, for instance, is completely linear, which is refreshing when you read a diet of contemporary fiction that seems preoccupied with flashbacks and multiple storylines. And his prose, as always, is simple, elegant and clear.

I got completely absorbed by this portrait of a mismatched marriage and loved the soap opera-ish element to it and the ways in which the characters behaved so abominably, often against expectation. For instance, who would think dull, strait-laced Walter would have it in him to plot his wife’s murder by forcing her to live in a town consumed by a cholera epidemic?

The ending is a bit of a let down (the 2006 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is much better), but on the whole The Painted Veil is a compelling tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption and confirms Maugham as one of my favourite writers.

2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, China, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Madeleine Thien, Publisher, Setting

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeliene Thien
UK edition

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 480 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s not often I struggle to say something about a book, but trying to review Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing has proved a challenge.

So much has been written about this novel in the past six months, mainly because of its shortlisting on both the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2016 Giller Prize, that I didn’t feel I could add anything new. Then, when I sat down to commit my thoughts to this blog last week, it was named winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and the internet was awash, once again, with praise and reviews.

On that basis I’m going to keep this short.

Life under Communism

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a careful blur of fiction and history that follows the interlinked lives of two Chinese families and their struggle to survive under China’s Communist rule. It spans the time of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s right through until the student protests in 1989.

The narrative comprises two threads. The first, written in the first person in 1991, is told from the perspective of Marie, a 10-year-old girl living in Canada with her Chinese mother. Their lives are interrupted with the arrival of a young Chinese woman, Ai-Ming, who is fleeing the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is Ai-Ming’s story, told in the third person, of her family’s life in revolutionary China, which forms the second narrative thread.

And it is this thread that makes Do Not Say We Have Nothing such a powerful read, because it follows the topsy-turvy lives of three young classically trained musicians and their struggle to create music at a time when creative expression was forbidden except in the strictest of terms. The simple act of playing a violin, or just the “wrong” kind of music, for instance, could result in internment at best or death at worst.

An ambitious and epic novel

This book is best described as an “epic”. It’s not only ambitious in scope, its complex, interleaved narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, is meticulous in its detail. Yet the story never gets bogged down, perhaps because of its wonderfully drawn trio of musicians — composer Sparrow, violinist Zhuli and the pianist Kai  — whose joys, sorrows and struggles we get to follow so intimately.

The novel’s strength is the way it so eloquently reveals how the hand of history leaves a long-lasting legacy, stretching across generations. Like several other books I’ve read recently (Magda Szubanksi’s Reckoning and Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water immediately come to mind) it explores intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and moral ambiguity. It shines a light on how political regimes can mark the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary, often devastating, ways.

Funnily enough, for all of that, I must admit that this book did not pack the emotional punch one might expect. It’s not that I did not care about these characters — I did — but somehow I felt as if I was always kept at a distance from them (this is also how I felt when I read Thien’s novel Dogs at the Perimeter several years ago). It wasn’t until I came to Ai-Ming’s involvement in the student protests in the late 1980s that I began to feel the true weight of this story, of how history somehow has an uncanny knack of repeating itself and that it is often the young, with so much to lose, who get trammelled by it.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Canadian edition

I could point to many dozens of reviews more eloquent and detailed than mine, but let me just point to Naomi’s, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, for the two of us have read this book for the Shadow Giller.

In the meantime, if you loved this novel, I do highly recommend Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal by Jan Wong, a non-fiction book about the long-lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution on two students, and Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, an epic novel about the 1989 student pro-democracy movement. I have reviewed other books set in China or by Chinese writers here.

This is my 6th and final book for the #ShadowGiller2016

UPDATE — TUESDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2016:  Do Not Say We Have Nothing has been awarded this year’s Giller Prize. You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.

A Yi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘A Perfect Crime’ by A Yi


Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld Publications; 224 pages; 2015. Translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood.

I do love a dark crime novel — and A Yi’s A Perfect Crime is probably one of the darkest I’ve read in a long time.

Set in China, it follows the exploits of a disaffected 19-year-old student who decides he’s so bored he needs to do something to make his life more exciting. Where others might go on a holiday or take up a new hobby, this nameless young man decides to murder a fellow student by luring her into the apartment he shares with his aunt. Here, he brutally stabs her to death and then shoves her body into a washing machine. He then goes on the run, criss-crossing the country, in what turns out to be a cat-and-mouse game with the police.

Will he get caught?

A Perfect Crime isn’t your traditional who dunnit, because we know up front who committed the crime. We also know how he did it, and, because it’s told entirely from his point of view, we also know why he did it, even if we may not understand his reasoning or logic. What we don’t know is whether he will get caught, and if he does get caught, will he get away with it or begin to show remorse?

This makes the book quite an original take on a genre that can often be predictable or trot out the same old tropes. And despite the fact the reader knows the who, why and how of the narrator’s horrid and brutal crime, the author manages to achieve a high level of tension throughout. I raced through this in just a handful of sittings and felt slightly wrung out by the end of it.

It’s an incredibly bleak story, one that often brought to mind Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and MJ Hyland’s This is How, two books that are fascinating portraits of murderers who commit extraordinary violent murders almost on a whim. I was also reminded of the very best Japanese crime fiction — for instance, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief and Shuichi Yoshida’ Villain — which explore the dark recesses of Japanese society.

A dark glimpse at Chinese culture

Interestingly, I heard the author speak about this book (via a translator) at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival earlier in the week. He said the book was based on a true crime and that he wanted to explore the dark underbelly of Chinese culture, but he did not want to glorify the crime, hence he did not give the narrator a name.

Having now read the book, I can see that his experience in law enforcement (he was a policeman for five years) and as a journalist/editor, has come to the fore. Not only does the content of the book feel authentic, in particular, the crime and the judicial process that follows, it reads like a dream — the prose is action-driven, clean, bare-boned and there’s not a word out of place.

But while A Perfect Crime is set in China and gives us a glimpse of a society undergoing super-quick change, this is essentially a universal story of what can happen to young men, who are disaffected, bored and uninspired by the life they see before them — no matter where they live.

For another take on this book, please see Stu’s review.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, China, England, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Suzanne Joinson

‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ by Suzanne Joinson


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 384 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Suzanne Joinson’s debut novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is a fascinating account of a trio of English missionaries working in a Muslim-dominated region of China in 1923. It also features a dual narrative, set in present day London, in which a young woman learns she has inherited an apartment full of belongings, including a pet owl, from a stranger.

A narrative composed of diary entries

The missionary side of the story unfolds in a series of diary entries by Evagaline English, who is penning a lady cyclist’s guide to Kashgar, hence the title of the book. Eva, as she is known, is in Kashgar, East Turkestan, with her sister, Lizzie, and their benefactress, Millicent, to help set up a Christian mission on behalf of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face.

The book opens in dramatic fashion when the trio, somewhere in the desert, stumble upon a woman giving birth by the roadside. They stop to help, and Millicent delivers the baby using a pair of forceps. The mother dies, presumably from blood loss, and a crowd of onlookers blame Millicent for her death.

‘They say we have taken the girl to give ourselves strength, and that we plan to steal the baby and eat it.’ Lizzie spoke quickly, in that odd, high voice. Her ability with this impenetrable Turki language is much better than mine.
‘She died in childbirth, natural causes, as you can all very well see,’ Millicent shouted uselessly in English, and then repeated it in Turki. Lizzie set about bringing water in our tankards and a blanket.
‘They are demanding that we are shot.’

From thereon in, the three women tread a dangerous path. Not only are they in a Muslim-dominated area of China — where other religions are not tolerated — they now have a baby who does not belong to them in their possession and are being charged with murder and witchcraft.

While under a kind of “house arrest” the baby’s welfare falls largely to Eva. Meanwhile militant-like Millicent is hellbent on converting the locals and dreamy Lizzie spends her days taking photographs. The narrative charts the tensions between the trio and the local community as it rises from resistance to calamity. More interestingly, it also charts the tensions between the three women, each of whom has a secret to keep.

A present-day story set in London

The present-day narrative, which is told in the third person, follows Frieda, a woman who lives alone in a South London apartment. Frieda has a busy job that involves lots of travel; she’s estranged from her mother; and has been involved in a long-term affair with a married man that is unravelling at the seams.

Then two startling things happen to her, which turn her life upside down: she finds a homeless Yemeni man living on her doorstep and befriends him; and then she receives a letter informing her that she has inherited a council flat full of property, including a caged owl, belonging to a woman she doesn’t know. According to council records, the woman is Frieda’s next-of-kin.

As you can tell, these two narratives are poles apart, but part of the mystery and enjoyment of reading A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is trying to determine the link between them — and it’s not as obvious as one might think.

Satisfying storytelling

Joinson writes each thread in a different prose style — the first has an old-fashioned feel and is reminiscent of the period in which it is set, the second is more contemporary in tone and style. And while some readers might find this juxtaposition jarring, I quite enjoyed moving backwards and forwards in time like this, although I much preferred the missionary storyline, probably because Eva’s voice was so engaging. I also enjoyed the judicious use of cliffhangers, which keeps the momentum going.

As I read this book I felt that I was going on a rather intimate journey, because Joinson captures periods and settings so vividly that exotic places, such as Kashgar, come alive on paper. Her attention to detail — especially in terms of historical facts and cultural references — pay off without you ever feeling as if she’s shoehorned in a bunch of research just to get the “flavour” right.

And while the title is somewhat of a misnomer (there’s not much cycling in this book at all), A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is a gorgeous read, tempered by a lovely sense of wry humour, that whisks you away to another world. It’s peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters and covers their journeys — physical, emotional and metaphorical — with care and compassion. It’s a perfect rainy day read.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, Geling Yan, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Flowers of War’ by Geling Yan


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2012. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

Geling Yan’s The Flowers of War is set during the Nanking Massacre — sometimes known as the Rape of Nanking — in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed when Japanese forces captured the Chinese city in December 1937.

An American church offers shelter

In this fictionalised account, a group of 16 terrified schoolgirls find safety in the attic of an American church. St Mary Magdalene is protected by a high wall and regarded as neutral territory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is run by Father Engelmann, an American who has lived in China for 30 years, with the help of Deacon Fabio Adornato, another Westerner who was born to Italian-American parents and raised in Yangzhou.

But a day after the girls have been taken in, a group of women clamber over the wall demanding equal protection. They are prostitutes from the nearby Qin Huai River brothels and they do not want to be taken by the Japanese soldiers as “comfort women”. Father Engelmann tries to turn them away, claiming he does not have enough food, water or shelter, but he eventually agrees they can stay in the cellar — for two days.

To make matters worse, two wounded Chinese soldiers secretly enter the compound. They have survived a shocking massacre and have nowhere else to go. Again, Father Engelmann tries to turn them away but relents and they are housed in the cellar with the prostitutes.

Tension between those seeking refuge

The story basically shows how these four divergent group of people — the religious men, the prostitutes, the schoolgirls from privileged backgrounds and the soldiers — must live together under extraordinary circumstances, where prejudice and tension abounds, food and water is in short supply, and fear of Japanese evasion is ever present.

I had expected The Flowers of War to be dark and very moving, but apart from the odd moment of horror, the story generally falls flat. Part of the problem is the lack of a central character with which to identify, so an emotional connection cannot be made. And Engelmann, Fabio and the schoolgirl Shujuan feel too distant — and cold-hearted — to really care about.

The prose, which occasionally shimmers, largely seems all tell and not much show. It’s not exactly pedestrian, but it does feel as if you’re reading the bones of a story which is in need of a bit more meat.

Prejudiced attitudes

And, if I am honest, I found it difficult to believe that a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Shujuan, could be so prejudiced against the prostitutes. She is fascinated by their antics and often spies on them through a hole in the floor, but she is also so vehemently opposed to them, I couldn’t help but wonder where that kind of hateful attitude had sprung from? Were privately educated schoolgirls in 1930s China taught that prostitutes were the lowest form of life? Or was it something she learned from her rich parents?

It didn’t seem to add up to me — and nor did the epilogue, which felt tacked on and clumsy. Here, nine years after the massacre, Shujuan is just coming to realise how these women may have saved her life and is trying to track them down, because “if she didn’t remember them, who would?”

It’s a great shame that The Flowers of War was so dull, because this is an important — and dramatic — story needing to be told. Perhaps the film adaptation, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale, is better. It wouldn’t be hard.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Qui Xiaolong, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Mao Case’ by Qui Xiaolong


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 304 pages; 2009.

The Mao Case by Qui Xiaolong is the sixth and latest book in the Inspector Chen series, which is set in modern day China. But the author, who writes in English, actually lives in the US.

I’ve not read the previous five novels, but I did not find this a hindrance to what proved to be an enjoyable if somewhat unconventional detective story.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not your average run-of-the-mill police officer. He is young, idealistic and takes pride in his work. He loves literature and poetry and does a nice sideline in translation. But his personal life is complicated: his girlfriend, Ling, lives hundreds of miles away in Beijing and their relationship is a tumultuous one. In fact, in the opening chapter of The Mao Case Chen is informed by telephone that Ling has dumped him and married a man more appropriate to her social standing (she’s known as a HCC — a high cadre’s child — because her father is a top-ranking Party official).

But this is merely a sub-plot. The main story involves Chen going undercover to investigate a rather delicate matter involving Chairman Mao. He must take a softly softly approach, not least because “any slander against Mao, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, will affect the legitimacy of the Party”.

The Party believe that Mao may have given some unspecified material to Shang Yunguan, a 1950s movie star he is said to have had an affair with. The Party want the material back, even though they don’t know what it is and whether it even exists. It’s not something that can be discussed openly, because that would confirm the rumours about Mao’s illicit private life, something which must be avoided at all costs.

A party official, Minister Huang, enlists Chen to undertake this highly secret investigation after Internal Security fail to turn anything up.

“She [Shang] could have taken — or been given — something from him. There were many opportunities.”
“Something from Mao?” Chen was instantly alert, though hardly able to smother the sarcasm is his voice. “What could that possibly be?”
“We don’t know.”

The minister believes the material may have been passed to Shang’s daughter, Qian — who died in an accident at the end of the Cultural Revolution — which was then inherited by her granddaughter Jiao. The Party is suspicious of Jiao, because she quit her job a year ago and moved into a luxurious apartment. Since then she has frequently been seen at parties — attended by Westerners — that are being hosted by a mysterious elderly art teacher and 1930s expert called Mr Xie, “who bears a deep grudge against Mao”.

As part of the investigation, which swings between Shanghai and Beijing, Chen reinvents himself as a businessman and writer researching Shanghai’s 1930s glory days in order to infiltrate Mr Xie’s glamorous parties. Along the way he meets strange businessmen, Triads, beautiful women, Chairman Mao himself and all sorts of writerly types.

The plot is occasionally confusing — and preposterous. But Xiaolong’s descriptions of China — where the cities of Beijing and Shanghai are being seemingly transformed overnight and where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening — more than makes up for these minor flaws. As do the descriptions of food, particularly Chen’s visit to the Fangshan Restaurant, which specialises in imperial cuisine. Here, he dines on genuine Beijing duck and experiences…

the celebrated five ways of eating a duck: crisp duck skin slices wrapped in pancake, duck meat slices fried with green garlic, duck feet immersed in wine, duck gizzard stir-fried with green vegetables, and duck soup.

Mind you, the constant references to Chinese poetry, literature and sayings, which give the narrative a peculiar charm, begin to feel tiresome and heavy-handed by the half-way point. We know the book is set in China; we don’t need to be constantly reminded of it in such an obivous way.

That said, the narrative is well paced and builds plenty of momentum, culminating in a suitably heart-hammering and dramatic, if somewhat ambiguous, ending. It’s safe to say this was my first Inspector Chen novel and it’s unlikely to be my last.

The other novels in the series are: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006) and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). The seventh novel, Don’t Cry Tai Lake, is due for publication in September 2012.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, China, Jan Wong, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal’ by Jan Wong


Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

Journalist Jan Wong is a third-generation Canadian of Chinese heritage. In 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, she became one of only two Westerners admitted to Beijing University, where she studied Mandarin. She was 19, impressionable and a proud Maoist, so when a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, told her she wanted help fleeing China for the United States — a Maoist “crime” — Jan did not hesitate to tell the authorities.

In one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. […] At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I’d done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it.

Thirty-three years later Jan decides to return to Beijing — dragging her husband and two teenage sons with her — to look for Yin Luoyi. She knows she may never find her — “How will I find a stranger in a country of 1.3 billion?” — but feels compelled to try, if only to keep her conscience at bay. But with no plan of action and just a 28-day stay, it truly seems an impossible mission.

Chinese Whispers details Jan’s quest to find the woman she wronged. But the engaging narrative also doubles as a travelogue as Jan describes a city — and a nation — in the grips of a radical transformation. It’s two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and buildings are being knocked down and replaced, seemingly overnight. There are new roads, new cars. The trappings of enormous wealth, rubbing up against poverty, are everywhere. This is not the city that Jan left behind all those years ago — tracking down old friends, foes and comrades is going to be more difficult than ever before.

In many ways this book reads like a detective story, as Jan slowly uncovers clues, stumbles over red herrings and runs into dead ends. But it is also a wonderfully evocative account of China’s recent history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, detailing the changing face of its political, social and economic systems. Indeed, it’s probably one of the best portraits of a nation trying to deal — or not deal — with its past that you’re ever likely to find.

Her narrative style is engaging and effusive and she has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. (I love that she calls her husband Norman “Fat Paycheck” in a nod to the Chinese name of Yulu that he was given when he lived in Beijing for some 20 years — apparently Yu means riches and lu means an official’s salary in ancient China, hence Jan’s tongue-in-cheek translation.)

Perhaps the only problem with the book is that it is now slightly dated — it was first published in Canada in 2007 as Beijing Confidential — but given China’s rapid pace of development, particularly in the past five years, that should come as no surprise.

Chinese Whispers is one of those books for which you need to clear your schedule — once you pick it up, the story is so gripping it’s a wrench to put it down. I made the mistake of starting it in a lunch-hour and then it was a race to get home after work to continue where I’d left off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Vintage

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Henning Mankell


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 560 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Despite liking Scandinavian crime novels, I’ve never quite got around to reading anything by Henning Mankell, arguably the grand master of the genre. I’ve been reluctant to read his Inspector Wallander mysteries because there are 11 books in the series, a major commitment for someone like me who would want to read them all in the correct order.

But The Man From Beijing is a stand-alone book, so there was no need to worry about over-committing myself. As it turns out, it was an entertaining read, and one that was not terribly demanding, but I’m not sure that it’s encouraged me to go down the Wallander route — although I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise.

The story starts off with a real show-stopper: nineteen people, all related, are slaughtered in a sleepy Swedish village in the dead of winter. It is Sweden’s biggest mass murder. The media are crawling all over it, but the police don’t have a clue as to who might have committed it. Was it a lunatic gone mad with a machete? Or a thoroughly planned exercise by a team of killers? What, exactly, was the motive?

But The Man From Beijing is not a police procedural. The story is told largely through the eyes of Birgitta Roslin, a perfectly nice middle-aged judge from Helsingborg, who is distantly related to a couple of the victims. In her working life Birgitta has seen and done it all (her experiences, related as back story, serve to highlight the dark underbelly of Swedish society). When she is signed off work with high blood pressure, she decides to fill her days investigating the mass murder — as you do.

She has a few run-ins with the detective in charge of the investigation — a bullish woman by the name of Vivi Sundberg — but on the whole it’s clear that Birgitta is miles ahead of the police in terms of finding leads and potential suspects. But how can she connect the red ribbon found at the scene with a nineteenth century diary? And who was the mysterious Chinese man who booked into a local hotel the night before the murder?

Just as Birgitta’s investigation begins to really take off, Mankell does something unexpected. He takes the story back to 1863, at a time when three Chinese brothers were press-ganged into working on the railroad that links the American east coast with the west. What does this have to do with the murder in Sweden more than a century later? Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

I think the major problem I had with this book was its structure. It morphs into a kind of political thriller, and the event which opens the book in such stunning style gets almost forgotten as Mankell builds up an extensive web of corruption across three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

As you might expect from the title, a large chunk of the book is set in China. In fact, Birgitta, who wanted to join the Red Guard in her youth, visits the country on a spur-of-the-moment decision to continue her unofficial enquiries (the fact there is no mention of acquiring a travel visa was just one of many factual omissions that annoyed me while reading this book).

The China depicted here is modern and vibrant, but it is also deeply divided. Just as Mankell makes undisguised commentary about Sweden’s social problems through the criminal cases over which Birgitta must preside, in the Chinese parts of the novel he makes more undisguised commentary about a rampant economic system, Communism and corruption. Indeed, he ties them all together, and then throws in a semi-plausible plot about China wanting to “export” its poverty-stricken peasants to Zimbabwe and Mozambique in exchange for helping to develop those countries. (I rather suspect Mankell read Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think? as part of his research, because he regurgitates a lot of the facts that Leonard presents in his book, including the notion that China donates huge sums of money to African nations that have been turned down for loans by the International Monetary Fund.)

As a thriller, the story has a sufficiently menacing undertone to make one keep turning the pages. But as a crime novel it lacks punch, probably because the killer is clearly identified very early on in the book. Mankell then spends some 300-plus pages explaining how that killer came to do what he did.

On the whole, I enjoyed The Man From Beijing as a “holiday read” (I was travelling around Ireland at the time), but it’s a woolly book in need of some tight editing. It is easily 200 pages too long. Still, the saving grace is Birgitta, a convincing character with just the right touch of paranoia, to keep the story pedalling along.