by Fred Hiatt
In Nine Days Fred Hiatt has written a rollicking and fast-paced young adult adventure novel. It boasts everything readers expect from the genre: danger, exotic locals, clearly delineated good and evil, obstructive parents, and the spark of adolescent love.
Still, the novel is a standout thanks mostly to its subject matter: a Chinese democracy activist is lured to Hong Kong where he is kidnapped, smuggled over the border, and imprisoned by the Chinese government. The story is based loosely on the true story of Wang Bingzhang, the founder of the Union of Chinese Democracy Movement, but Nine Days diverges from reality when the activist's teenage daughter, Ti-Anna - named for Wang's actual daughter - flies to Hong Kong with her school friend Ethan on a rescue mission.
Hiatt would seem an ideal author for this book. Currently the editorial page editor at The Washington Post, Hiatt has a long history reporting from Asia, though not China. His love for China comes through clearly in his writing, as do his less-affectionate feelings towards the Chinese government. With Hiatt's name on the front cover, readers may expect a more nuanced examination of Chinese politics, history, and the struggle for democracy. If that is the case they will be disappointed. With the exception of afterwords from the real Ti-Anna Wang and Hiatt, the author uses the unusual story as a device on which to hang what is, in the end, a fairly orthodox adventure story. One feels it could just as easily have been the tale of a treasure hunt.
Which is not to say it fails as a novel, as Hiatt has written a fun and satisfying story. If at times his characters fall flat, this is more than made up for by his richly rendered settings: Hong Kong, Vietnam, and even suburban Washington D.C. come alive and Hiatt's obvious first-hand experience in Asia shines through on every page.
This is Hiatt's first book for young adults but he displays an obvious comfort in the genre. He has a storyteller's sense of pace and suspense, but at times one wishes he would take the time to slow down and explore the emotional depths of his characters and story. As a result of his breakneck speed, even scenes involving serious issues like human trafficking and child prostitution are left feeling oddly light.
A compelling story of humankind's struggle for freedom and justice it is not; what Nine Days is, is a fun and compulsively engaging global adventure story that will have you - or your kids - engrossed.
- For more on the real Ti-Anna Wang's story and her campaign to shed light on her father's situation go to scmp.com/tianna