Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Moving from Burma to Hong Kong, and from a sense of the mystical to more dramatic murder mystery, does nothing to dent the growing reputation of Jan-Philipp Sendker. A rare insight into modern China’s growing pains through a gripping story capable of being enjoyed at a much more superficial level, of you’re not in the mood for thinking. Recommended
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 330 Date: June 2015
Publisher: Polygon
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846973307

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Paul Leibovitz was a journalist. That was before. Before he had a small child, who did not survive as long as he should have. Before the end of the marriage that did not survive the loss of a child. Now Leibovitz himself, merely survives. He lives in a kind of self-imposed exile on Lamma, third largest of the Hong Kong islands, a place of greenery and solitude.

But even the most grief-stricken of fathers has to step back into the real world now and again, and one of Paul's regular trips back to the maelstrom of Hong Kong is an annual pilgrimage to the top of the Peak… a trip he used to take with his son, and now does in memory of him. It's a purely personal expedition, until this time. This time, at the café at the top a woman speaks to him.

Mrs Owen, is an American. And her son has disappeared. There is absolutely no reason why Leibovitz should get drawn into this.

Just as a little while previously there was no reason why he should be drawn to the young lady who got caught in the rain on Lamma. Of course he offered her shelter and, because it was easy, a warm shower and soup and dry clothes. But then she should have left… he was unnerved that she didn't. He didn't want her in his life. And yet here she was. Christine. With her infinite patience but her ever-present fear.

Fear pervades the novel. Fear born of the Cultural Revolution, when everyone was taught to trust no-one, to betray everyone as a way to stay alive.

Fear and shame. It's the latter that most likely drives (or restrains) the final main character of Sendker's latest oriental offering: Zhang. Zhang is a policeman on the other side of the border, which we forget is no longer really a border. Zhang was also a child of the cultural revolution. Too young to have been one of its engineers, old enough to get caught up in, maybe to participate in, its atrocities. But he has survived and now works on the right side of the law… even if the neighbourhood is going down the tubes and the law isn't doing much about it.

Zhang and Leibovitz have been friends for quarter of a century. So when the ex-journalist gets drawn into the mystery of the missing Michael Owen, who else would he call on for help?

What follows is a reasonably straight-forward mystery, interlaced with a hesitant love story of a man finding his way reluctantly back into the world.

It's also a story of a China, also (maybe equally reluctantly) trying to find its way back into the world. Everything that happens 'over there' – as though Hong Kong and China were still two separate countries – is laced (in the sense of being tainted) with everything bad that happened during the Mao years: the work camps, the split families, the fear, the killing for a few black peppercorns. It is also a place where the people who are even at one tiny remove from it feel has not changed much, that the people who were in power, still are, and that forgiveness is not really on anyone's agenda.

Beyond the personal (or at least surrounding it) Sendker also shows us how rapidly China is changing. At least in the semi-autonomous areas where there's money to be made. He shows us a China of conspicuous consumption, ostentation of the crude and western kind. Symbols of a new wealth that painfully echo the nouveau riche of the west – all money and no taste as someone once put it. A display of wealth that buys other people's symbols with a disregard for the beauty and art and richness of their own heritage.

This third novel from Sendker is a slight departure from the previous Burma-based diptych. It is far less lyric in its approach, and the mystery upon which the personal stories are hung is divorced from them. In a sense it's a much more conventional novel. For me it, what it loses in the touch of the magical, it gains through its sheer believability. No suspension of disbelief is required for this one. Less deliberately emotive than the Burma books, more overtly politically and societally aware.

It is (or should be) a very different sensibility but at the same time the gentle tone that typified the first two books, remains intact. The switch in translator (Christine Lo on this occasion) leaves Sendker's own voice intact and instantly recognisable from the previous books.

I remember quoting the oriental wisdom evident in the Burma books. In this one the author self-references the tendency by having two of his protagonists trade proverbs with each other… but then, someone else points out, even the philosophers are allowed to be wrong.

If you loved The Art of Hearing Heartbeats and/or A Well-Tempered Heart – you will not be disappointed by this one. And if you didn't, this might tempt you to look again at someone who is fast becoming one of my favourite modern authors. For crime modern-China-style we can also recommend The Pool of Unease by Catherine Sampson.

Booklists.jpg Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2015.

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