Thursday, August 13, 2009
Modern China, Venerable Genre
The giant eye gazing out of the cover of The Eye of Jade met mine from the library recommended shelf, so I threw it in my bag and brought it home. It turns out to be a detective story set in China, with Mei trying to make it at a private detective after she quit her government job rather than compromise her principles. One guiding principle being that she didn't want to be raped, for example. Her mother figures it's just another way this lesser daughter has disappointed; at least Lu had the sense to marry a rich successful man with lots of power.
Mei works at solving a mystery brought to her by a close family friend, but when her mother suffers a possibly fatal stroke she also has to confront her relationships with her family and her attitude towards people. The mystery spirals in towards her mother's past and the grim and amoral choices everyone was forced to make during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Terror.
The author, Diane Wei Liang, spends much more time on Mei's connection with her family then on her career as a detective, which is good for me since I'm not a big mystery reader. The details of life in modern China are fascinating, with the layered importance of wealth and power, and the buried secrets of recent and generational history. The complex emotions of fear and grief for the ill mother and the anger at some of the secrets uncovered in the investigation give the story its power. Yet I never felt completely engaged; the tone and language kept me at a remove. It was the same feel that the book Waiting gave me, so it might be a style of Chinese writing that doesn't work well for me. I also didn't like the end; Mei makes a major decision essentially off-stage. I would have preferred to see her confront it before the book ended. I probably won't pick up the next book in this series, but I think the author has a new memoir out that I might look for. B-.