Mei Wang is a determined young woman in modern China. Not wishing to be part of the conventional system of kickbacks and privilege, she quits her safe Ministry job and sets up as a private investigator. Because detective agencies are illegal, she calls herself an information consultant, and hires a young man from the provinces to be her secretary and to make sure her clients pay up.
The Eye of Jade is a delightfully appealing little book, which is really two stories. One is the story of Mei and her family – her widowed mother, her spoilt, rich sister Lu, and a range of “aunties” and “uncles”, only some of whom are related. Through the family’s trials and tribulations, the reader is treated to a wonderful account of life in China – how state intervention affects the rebels as much as the opportunists, the peasants who are looked down on by the city dwellers, the gambling and gaming addictions, the poor “cities” of tents and tenements. Mei’s family story is a great way to learn about this strange country and its many cultural norms that are so different from those with which we are familiar in the West.
The other aspect of the story concerns the investigation. Mei is hired by her “uncle” Chen, in reality an old friend of her mother’s, to find a stolen, ancient artefact. To do this, she has to follow up various leads in the less savoury parts of Beijing, providing us with a richly varied tour of gambling dens, struggling restaurants, market traders and more.
As a detective story, the book does not really work. The plot is weak and not resolved in any serious manner. But as an account of a family’s travails, as Mei unravels what happened to her father and tries to be a good daughter to her unloving mother, and a good sister to the patronising, materialistic Lu, we are treated to a fascinating glimpse of the lives of Beijingers. Mei is involved in a reunion with her old university friends, and with her old boyfriend who has moved to the USA, as well as digging into the past of the Cultural Revolution and various other dubious population-control initiatives.
I give this book ten out of ten for atmosphere and the character of Mei. It is far less strong on plot, but the author has bags of talent and I am sure will develop it in future novels.
Review first posted at Petrona. (March 2010).