Paper Butterfly Diane Wei Liang Picador Asia
So the first book I read and reviewed from the packages we got is The Paper Butterfly, a crime novel set in Beijing. Mei Wang is an independent female private eye whose latest case is tracking down a missing starlet. Meanwhile Lin has just been released from reform labor camp out west after serving 8 years for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen student protests. As he makes his way home to Beijing filled with bitterness over his lost years, Mei continues with her case, doggedly overcoming bureaucratic hassles and interference. The discovery of love letters and a mysterious ornament, which provides the novel’s name, in her quarry’s apartment provide clues which ultimately lead her to the tragic and sobering conclusion.
The second novel by the author to feature Mei Wang, Paper Butterfly winds through Beijing from traditional hutongs to the poor neighbourhoods of migrant workers on its outskirts. Born in Beijing, the author was a member of the student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square and personally experienced the fateful events leading to its demise. She projects this experience into her story, making it a central backdrop for both main characters.
The story drags a bit in the first half but really picks up near the end. As well, the characters’ memories and feelings on the Tiananmen protests, seem kind of apparent in terms of their sentimentality and idealism, though one that is infused with genuine experience from the author.
While cultural aspects like food, places and rituals are richly described, what is really insightful are the glimpses into modern Chinese society such as the tenuous existence of migrant workers, found in great numbers in major Chinese cities, corruption and the overbearing influence of the state. For instance, Mei’s assistant Gupin is a migrant worker who after being injured in a road accident and taken to a hospital, has to move out almost immediately because migrant workers are not entitled to health care.
More than a detective crime novel, the book is also a narrative on the severe and lingering impact of the 1989 events on those who took part.