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Thriller set in China (a dystopian vision of the country)
14th February 2019
The Far Side Of The Night by Jan-Philipp Sendker, thriller set in China. Translated by Christine Lo.
“It was always about guilt and punishment, not about justice”
Paul is moseying about in a panda park with his small son David, when he is approached by a group of extremely well attired locals who want their photo taken with his lovely-looking young son. Their demands for the photo opportunity feel rather menacing, as David is wrested from his father’s arms. After what feels like a thoroughly scary stand-off, Paul grapples him back and they make their escape.
Shortly thereafter Paul pops to the loo, leaving four year old David parked outside in his buggy. Upon his return he finds David has disappeared. The mounting panic as Paul searches for his son is poignantly and grippingly portrayed, heightened by the disinterest shown by the local police officers in his disappearance. By the time mum Christine arrives on the scene to help look for David, he is suddenly returned to his parents by a god-fearing couple who cannot countenance the dastardly plan of kidnap formulated by their boss.
Paul enlists the help of his friend Zhang – former police officer (rather useful experience) and now Buddhist monk. Paul is alarmed to discover that in all likelihood one of the local mobsters (Chen, Xi or Wu – it turns out to be the Chen clan and their motley crew), who holds sway throughout the country and Chen will no doubt hunt their trophy child down to give the little boy to his son’s girlfriend (she expressed a desire to have him at the panda park, apparently).
The little family must escape and they start to zig zag their way across 2000 kms from fictional Shi to Beijing and to the American Embassy, where the influence of the gangsters ceases. They must run for their lives.
First pit stop and safe house is with grandfather Luo and his grandson Da Lin, in the middle of nowhere. A western family in the countryside is bound to provoke suspicion and inevitably they are soon outed. Murder and mayhem ensue as the family members do all the things they are advised not to do, like wandering off on a whim. The family acquires a new travelling companion which of course complicates matters. They also all seem to spend a lot of time hunkering down and going to sleep, which seems extraordinary given the circumstances. In general the characters’ responses to trauma often seem a little off-key.
The author paints quite a dystopian view of modern China, with a traumatised populace and huge poverty set against huge wealth. In terms of TripFiction this thriller has a lurid and colourful setting, as the characters traverse mainland China and Hong Kong.
The Far Side of The Night is in many ways a very readable novel. However it also has elements that make it feel rather two dimensional. The prose can feel quite stilted but I am not sure if that reflects the original or whether this is an issue with the quality of translation. The narrative jumps about, dialogue can be quite wooden and there are smatterings of backstories that really don’t add any depth to the plot (do we really need to know how bit-part-player Gao Goa satisfies herself sexually?). Events are created clearly to move things along that just feel too contrived, and the occasional non sequitur from one chapter to the next left me feeling a bit disorientated. Overall, not a book for me, but the author renders setting very well – he has been travelling to China for over 20 years.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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For plenty more books set in China, just access the TripFiction database (drill down further by location and genre).