Book review: Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm

Whispering Shadows
by Jan-Philipp Sendker
37 Ink/Atria Books

It has taken eight years for Jan-Philipp Sendker's terrific German-language romantic crime thriller, Whispering Shadows, set in Hong Kong and on the mainland, to appear in English. It has been worth the wait.

Sendker, born in 1960, is the former American and Asian correspondent for Stern, the weekly German news magazine. He has published two other novels, the bestselling The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, and its sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart.

This latest work is the first of a planned trilogy featuring careworn hero Paul Leibovitz, a retired expatriate journalist, but the delay in its translation means Sendker has already finished its sequel and made a start on the final instalment. We meet the haunted Leibovitz trying to find meaning to his empty existence on Lamma Island while reflecting on the brief life - and death - of his son, Justin.

"Relief came only in the brief moments when Paul started awake at night and thought he had dreamt it all. He sat up in bed for a few seconds and had the feeling he had woken from a nightmare. It wasn't true. The blood count was normal. Justin still had his head of strawberry-blond curls, his hair had not fallen out. He was lying next door in his room, in bed asleep."

Shortly before his death, Justin had asked his father if they would climb The Peak together again one day.

"'No cheating, Daddy. Tell the truth,' Justin had asked.

'Yes, of course,' Paul said reassuringly … it was a little white lie, the right reply - who would worry about it? But Paul could not forgive himself … He had betrayed his son."

His wife walks out on their marriage soon after Justin's death, leaving the tormented Leibovitz to battle his demons alone. Even a faltering friendship with a beautiful Chinese single mother, who is keen for something more, fails to rouse him from his anguish. Yet his life changes on the third anniversary of Justin's death after he decides to finally make that trip up The Peak and stops at a café for coffee and - Justin's favourite - lemon cake.

He reluctantly strikes up a conversation with an American woman, Elizabeth Owen, who has come to Hong Kong with her businessman husband to search for their missing 30-year-old son. Michael Owen was living in Hong Kong while working for his father's company, but two days earlier he travelled to Shenzhen to meet his father's multimillionaire business partner, Victor Tang, but never showed up.

Initially hesitant to get involved, Leibovitz finds himself unable to refuse the desperate woman's plea for help and makes a call to his long-time friend, Zhang Lin, a homicide detective in Shenzhen. "They found a body in Datouling Forest Park this morning. I think it's a foreigner …"

Sendker's enthralling tale, featuring haunting memories of the Cultural Revolution and modern-day high-level corruption, effortlessly weaves two narrative strands - a stuttering romance and a murder mystery - as Leibovitz's investigation increasingly puts his life in danger as he searches for the truth - and redemption. The author also cleverly ratchets up the tension as Leibovitz and Zhang close in on the culprit while facing seemingly insurmountable foes.

The author's eye for simple, telling detail - honed from his years working as a reporter - including authentic dialogue, and crisp yet vivid descriptions of Hong Kong locations will make book resonate with local readers, even if some landmarks, such as Central's old Star Ferry pier, have already been razed.

Sendker's skill as a writer - he says he wanted to be a novelist from the time he was 13 - ensures this gripping, sometimes deeply moving book, focusing on a courageous man coming to terms with the death of his child while rediscovering his love of life, never once becomes mawkish and is ultimately uplifting.

The sequel is eagerly awaited.