Saturday, 23 January 2016

French Concession -Xiao Bai

photo courtesy:one world publications
After sailing through the last couple of books which were fairly less demanding, I went on a rollercoaster ride with this one.

The book appealed because of the some keywords - Chinese writer and "French" in the title proved an exotic combination. I love Chinese culture, their writing and always am on a lookout to discovering new talents. When this one came by through the goodreads giveaway, I pounced on it....and won a copy!

The synopsis suggested it was about crime, mafia, double agents. Since this is exactly up my alley at the moment, I couldn't wait to get stuck in.


The story is the set in the 1930s, a time of change, of political clout and international interest. The story begins with an assassination at the Shanghai harbour. The victim is a top official who was to arrive with his wife, Leng. The killer shoots himself after the assassination and the wife goes missing.

Hsueh a photo journalist who was on board the same boat, finds himself in the midst of all it. He is travelling with his white Russian girlfriend and sees Leng and is stunned by her beauty.
But he has issues of his own. His girlfriend Therese, seems to harbour secrets of her own and he is keen to find out what they are.

When Hsueh is caught by the French Concession - an area that is controlled by the French officials, he is forced to walk a tightrope walk between the police and the outlaws.

There is also this legend called Ku, the leader of a gang behind the assassination who is now planning something even major, that has the police on its toes.

What follows is a complex web of deceit, manipulation and betrayal as events spiral out of control. Hsueh is oscillating between his feelings for Leng and Therese while trying to keep them all safe.

What works:
  • A clever writer and a great translator are at work. The jacket cover is intriguing, the story cover exotic and the writing just sucks you in.
  • There are maps which suggest where the assassination took place or where the hold up was going to be, lending a meticulous attention to detail and an interesting feature to the story.
  • The action is good and the last hundred pages are packed with suspense and adventure.
  • Some of the lines are so good that they slide in and out of the novel. The ones that keep coming to me are:
There is never a good time to tell someone you love them. But then whenever you do, it usually sounds right.

It surprised Hsueh that no woman could withstand the power of those three words.They all seemed to be under the same spell, or to have drunk a potion that made them play the same part in the same movie.

The setting sun shone on the pool outside, and the water shimmered like the glistening skin of a belly dancer.

What doesn't:

  • The style is not the standard western style. It is crooked, haphazard and takes reader for granted. 
  • The story demands concentration as names are thrown in and action takes place without warning.
  • The first hundred pages do not make much sense as events and characters turn up without a proper introduction and the reader is swamped with a lot of information.
  • There is a lot of passive paragraphs instead of dialogues that affect the flow of the story.
  • The narrative is clear because of the splendid translation but it is the style that makes it difficult.
I would have given up halfway. But something about the story made me want to understand the style and stick with it. However, once you get over the style and narrative, it is the same crime thriller about double crossing, vested interests and the race against time which gives the reader of a sense of familiarity.

Overall. it is a demanding read but something different. I enjoyed the story although it did take some effort. The characters are good but it is the action that reigns supreme in the story. 

It appealed to the serious reader in me. I loved the characters, the insight into the culture, the story behind "concessions" and how international politics wanted to worm its way into Shanghai. It offered a glimpse of a politically changing China.

The writer's note in the end was another fascinating read, where he talks about how he got the facts and used creative licence to turn it into an entertaining read. It offered some great perspective into how the story got made, which added to the reading experience.

However, the casual reader in me struggled with it. If you are looking for a racy, linear read then you may want to skip this one. 

Go for it if you are willing to make the effort. 

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