Book review: Chinese spy novel French Concession delivers in the end

As a reader you want to like Xiao Bai's book, but it is a struggle to read

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 11:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 11:07pm

I wanted to like French Concession - it promised everything you want in a good summer read: a tale of espionage and international intrigue, peopled with criminals, femme fatales, revolutionaries and spies. What's not to like about a Chinese-French photographer with a Russian lover who moonlights as an arms dealer?

And yet the novel is a struggle to read, particularly the first third. Instead of whisking you away to 1930s Shanghai, you are left struggling with the complexities of the plot.

Good things are expected of this debut novel, since HarperCollins paid US$60,000 for the English copyright. This is a significant amount in the literary world, particularly for a Chinese novel - they are notoriously difficult to sell to the West. But there's more to a novel than an exciting plot and edgy characters - the language has to spin a web and draw you in so that you get lost in the action.

The story begins with a ship sailing from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Hsueh, a photographer travelling with his Russian lover, Therese, notices a beautiful woman and takes a few snaps of her. When they reach Shanghai, an important official travelling on the ship is assassinated and that beautiful woman - who we learn was the official's wife - disappears. Soon afterwards, Hsueh is arrested and drawn into a plot involving the police, politicians and criminals. In the midst of all this, Hsueh learns that his Russian lover is an arms dealer supplying Shanghai gangsters.

Complex plots are good, but when it feels like hard work following the action, it's no fun. It doesn't help that many of the characters have multiple identities and keep shifting allegiances.

Some of the problems may be down to the translation, which is so clunky in places that you stumble over awkward word choices. And some of it is also the narrative style - in particular there are places where it isn't clear whether the action is a flashback or happening in the present.

The characters aren't the sort that you grow to love. Exciting and mysterious they may be, but you don't have the sense of their development or getting to know them on a deeper level; they are just there to drive the plot.

We are told early on that "Hsueh never let himself think too hard about ethics, consequences, the meaning of life or things like that". That may sound like the super-cool composure you'd expect of a noir novel's leading man, but it winds up just feeling empty. For all the sex and violence, there's no real passion.

The pace picks up in the second half. Once you have worked out who is who and what's going on in this very complex plot, there are sections where the writing is smooth and Xiao Bai evokes an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue.

If you are willing to persevere, French Concession does deliver in the end, but do we really want to work that hard for our fiction?

French Concession  by Xiao Bai  (HarperCollins)