Mei Wang is a well-educated woman in her late 20s who used to work for the Chinese government, in security or for the police. Because Mei was being forced to do things that were against her principles, she left her good government job to become an information consultant in Beijing. She is really a private investigator, but in China of the 1990s she cannot use that term. This is a very daring move on her part, because she is a single woman who is running her own business without protection of party members. But she has managed to acquire a used car, an office, and even a male assistant.
One day, an old family friend, Uncle Chen Jitian, comes to see Mei. He has a job for her: track down a particular piece of jade dating from the Han Dynasty. The jade was stolen out of the Luoyang Museum by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The search for this priceless antique takes Mei into the seedier side of Beijing, and she soon has dealings with the black market and murder.
In the meantime, Mei's younger sister gets married to a rich businessman many years her senior, and her mother has a stroke and is taken to the hospital. When Mei's mother is suddenly moved to the best ward and the doctors tell her that she owes no money, Mei begins to question her family's past. All she knows is that her father, a poet, was sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution and that he eventually died in jail. Her mother raised the girls virtually alone, changing jobs and apartments frequently. Mei's aunt eventually tells the sisters what she remembers of their parents' life together and their involvement in the party and the Chinese government.
Liang, a Chinese native now living in England, is an accomplished writer. Her ability to describe people's actions, facial expressions, and changing moods is wonderful. I felt that I got a glimpse into Beijing of the 1990s--the politics, the streets, the food, the people. The book is well worth reading just for this aspect. On the other hand, the plotting of the mystery was not strong, and I was much more interested in Mei's family life and the story of her parents than I was in finding out what happened to the jade. The ending of the book seemed abrupt; I was expecting more surprise, more action, more something. Some issues concerning Mei and her mother were left unfinished, but the cover of the book indicates that this is the first in a series, so I'm hoping that we learn more of the Wang family in forthcoming novels.
I recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about modern Chinese culture and history and its effect on families and the working classes. I was especially interested in the different ways Mei, her sister, and her friends dealt with the conflicts of being part of today's world (traveling, using cell phones, owning businesses) while still needing to be careful about the party and the police. The young women had the additional burden of having to juggle their professional lives with the roles and duties they were expected to fulfill according to Chinese tradition.
This part of my Fall into Reading challenge. See other reviews from this challenge at Callapidder Days (click here).
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2008
Challenge: Fall into Reading