This new book by Jan-Philipp Sendker is hard to categorize, as some of the best books are. It has elements of mystery, romance, and family drama, while offering in-depth character exploration and an insighful look at modern China. Paul Leibovitz, an expat living in Hong Kong, loses his son to a tragic illness. When his marriage falls apart as a result, he shuns society for an isolated life on a small nearby island. Then one day by chance he meets a distraught American woman in a café, who is searching for her son, missing in China, and is desperate for help. Paul unwillingly finds himself getting involved with the search and is drawn into a tale of corruption and lies that is beyond his imagining.
Sendker visited our library yesterday as part of our Authors Out Loud series, and he told us some astounding true stories of China that inspired much of what happens in the book. He lived in Hong Kong for over four years as a journalist covering China, and he has visited the country over a hundred times. That authenticity really shows through in the book and makes it even more compelling. The story alternates point of view, from that of the Chinese characters to Paul, and this plot device works well in showing different perspectives on China. The cynicism, fear and mistrust held by the Chinese contrasts with the naivete of Paul and the other Americans in the book, who can’t understand why the Chinese act the way they do. Sendker exposes the violence and class hatred of the Cultural Revolution and how its long shadow still hovers over modern China. At the same time, he depicts his wounded characters with gentleness as they try to make their journey toward emotional wholeness.
Our library patrons loved Sendker’s first two novels, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats and A Well-Tempered Heart, and without a doubt they’ll like this book too. Sendker still draws upon his ability to tug at the heartstrings (I dare you to get through the letter from Paul to his son without tearing up). If you’re looking for a book with a little bit of everything and a lot of heart, give this one a try.