Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen 1) by Qiu Xiaolong

Murder in Shanghai…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the body of a young woman is found in a canal, Inspector Chen of the Special Cases unit decides to take on the case, initially simply because his subordinate, Detective Yu, was the only detective available to attend the crime scene. But, once the body is identified – in itself no easy task in a country as huge and populous as China – it transpires the victim is Guan Hongying, a national model worker: a title that denotes membership of the Communist Party and a position as a figurehead and public role model for workers. So the case is indeed special, and Chen will have to try to find the murderer without revealing anything about Guan’s life that may tarnish her reputation or that of the Party.

Qiu Xiaolong is Chinese, but left the country following the Tiananmen Square protests, and now lives in America. He writes in English, and as well as being a novelist, he is a poet, a translator and a literary critic. All of these elements feed into this novel, making it an intriguing mix of insider/outsider writing. As an insider, his depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life. As an outsider, he is quite clearly writing for a Western audience, explaining things that would need no explanation for a Chinese readership, and one has to bear in mind that he is to some degree a dissident, and therefore by definition not an uncritical admirer of the political regime in force in China at that point in time.

However, I felt that he gave a surprisingly balanced picture of the regime, resisting the temptation to make it seem even more repressive than it actually was, and giving credit for some of the positive aspects of it. He also shows that many, perhaps most, people support the regime, even though they grumble about some of the difficulties and inequalities that exist within it. I thought it was a wise decision too to set the book back in 1990, just at the time that he left Shanghai for the West, so that the city he is describing is still the one he knew rather than a researched version of the present. It’s another advantage to the western reader that his faultless fluency in English means there is none of the clunkiness or occasional lack of clarity that often accompanies even the best of translations.

All this description makes the book longer than the average crime novel, but it’s so interesting and well done, and incorporated so well into the story, that I found it didn’t slow the pace to any significant degree. The underlying story is excellent, as Chen and Yu delve deep into Guan’s life, finding that she had her own secrets that didn’t fit the model image she presented to Party and public. The plot takes us deep into the culture of Party privilege, and casts a great deal of light on how the current society has developed and changed during the long years of upheaval that have marked the various stages of the Chinese revolution. But it’s also a human story, of a young woman trying to live her life in the harsh glare of publicity, of love and sex and abuse, of corruption and power.

Inspector Chen is the main character, and Qiu fleshes him out excellently, giving him Qiu’s own expertise in poetry, both Chinese and western. Chen is himself a poet, but unlike, for instance, PD James’ Adam Dalglish, he hasn’t chosen for himself an unlikely second role as policeman – Chen has been allocated his job by the Party and has no real option but to obey or to lose any hope of status and advancement, or perhaps even to mark himself out as a dissident with all the dangers that entails. Again, Qiu doesn’t overplay this aspect – Chen is embedded in the existing culture, and while he might chafe at the strict rules governing his life at some points, he largely accepts them and tries to work within them. Detective Yu is equally well drawn – lower down the social scale, he allows us to see another level of the hierarchy and the control of the Party extending into people’s lives. He’s married, and in the latter part of the book his wife comes to the fore, giving us a glimpse of the life of a traditional wife and mother, while Chen’s love interest is a modern young journalist, showing the changes that are taking place for women too at this time.

Qiu Xiaolong

The book is laced with quotations from classic Chinese poetry and surprisingly this works brilliantly at helping the western reader understand the cultural underpinnings of this society, and of reminding us, who are too ready to look down on any society that doesn’t slavishly follow the western democratic model (which is working out so well, isn’t it? 😉 ), that China has a rich cultural heritage far, far more ancient than our own.

I enjoyed this as a crime novel, but even more as a fascinating insider depiction of China at a turning point in its political journey, and as a revealing portrait of the lives of the people of Shanghai. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Thanks to Margot Kinberg for drawing the book to my attention – your blog is sorely missed, Margot!

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The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Lessons in love…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

the valley of amazementViolet Minturn is the daughter of an American woman, owner of a high-class courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Violet grows up believing she is an American but is shocked to discover that in fact she is half-Chinese, daughter of a man who abandoned her mother when Violet was a baby. As a young teenager, she is separated from her mother and sold into a courtesan house, and the story follows her trials and tribulations through her life into middle-age.

The story is mainly told in the first person and Tan uses a rather formal, precise prose that gives the impression of someone speaking excellent English but as a second language, or perhaps as a translation. This is quite effective in preventing Violet, who despite her parentage has always lived in Shanghai, from sounding too American. At first, Violet considers herself to be American and thus (in the attitude of that time) superior to the Chinese but, once she is left to fend for herself, she has to learn to live as Chinese. The book shows quite clearly how someone of mixed-race was looked down on by both American and Chinese, and Violet’s struggle to be accepted by either group runs through the story.

“It’s one thing to lash a beauty’s arms to the high corner of the bed and quite another to hang her upside down like a monkey from the chandelier. They don’t care if the chandelier crashes down or an arm is twisted loose from its socket. I know of one girl who fell on her head, and afterward she put her clothes on backward and never said two words that made any sense.”

chinese-courtesan

Although Violet’s early story sounds fairly horrific – sold into prostitution – this is lightened by the fact that she grew up in a courtesan house and therefore wasn’t as shocked as a normal Westerner would be. In fact, the chapters where Magic Gourd (her mentor and friend) teaches her about courtesanship have a lot of humour which, although it’s obviously sex-related, rarely becomes too graphic to be comfortable. The book gives a fascinating look at this lifestyle, where the women must be ‘courted’ with gifts, sometimes for weeks, before any rumpy-pumpy can take place. Although the courtesans aren’t considered completely respectable, they aren’t reviled as common prostitutes either – they have their own place in society and the hope of each is to become a wife to one of their patrons which, as Tan relates it, happened fairly frequently.

“The only problem with old men is that they die, sometimes suddenly. You may have one as your patron who gives you a handsome stipend. It’s a sad day when you learn his sons are burning incense for him at the family temple. You can be sure that his wife won’t be toddling over with your stipend in hand.”

Amy Tan
Amy Tan

Unfortunately after this promising beginning, the book begins to drag. Yet again, at 600 pages, this one could have done with being cut by at least a third. Violet leaves the courtesan house and her life unfolds through a series of love affairs and tragedies. Some parts have the same interest as the first in showing a different lifestyle – for instance, how a Second or Third Wife could be treated in a land where women had very few rights. But other parts are repetitive and long drawn out. Although very well-drawn, Violet is not the most likeable lead character – she is strong, but she is also proud and arrogant and never really loses her sense of superiority over everyone she meets. Magic Gourd, on the other hand, is a great character who provides much of the humour which lightens the book. We don’t get much feel for Shanghai outside the courtesan house, and major events like WW1 and the war with Japan are skipped over lightly without much insight into how this affected life for the Chinese. There are parts of the story that should have been very emotional, but somehow didn’t quite work out that way – perhaps because Violet’s strength of character and lack of vulnerability prevents the reader from truly empathising.

All in all, a patchy read with some very good bits but other parts that were far too long and meandering. The strengths are in the writing and characterisation and these would persuade me to try more of Tan’s work, but I can only recommend this one half-heartedly. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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