The Eye of Jade
by Diane Wei Liang
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $24.00
(Book Review by Xujun Eberlein)
Diane Wei Liang's female detective protagonist, Mei Wang, is a character built up of conflicts between her mindset and reality. She is aloof, "an outsider who never wanted to be in" while in college, but her college friends turn out to be the only ones who truly care about her. Her longing for her mother's love manifests as resentment, and her mother suddenly has a stroke before there is a chance to reconcile. She desperately wants to cure her mother, but she has no money or connections, and those things can only come from the sister she looks down on. She detests "guanxi" (connecting with purpose) and people who are good at it, yet whatever clues she obtains for her investigation are through "guanxi." Wherever she exhausts her network of relations, her means of investigation also dry up. For the most part the novel leaves the reader wondering if the only way for Mei Wang to make progress in Chinese society is to embrace the opposite of what she values.
Yet this is a quite realistic depiction of the late 1990s' Chinese society, post Cultural Revolution, in the midst of the Reform-and-Open era. And Diane Wei Liang is at her best depicting it using multi-voice dialogue. Here is such a dialogue at a class reunion:
This conversation is so real, I can almost see those people's lips moving and hear their voices, as if they spoke in Chinese, as if I were among them.
Dialogue is also an economic means deployed in The Eye of Jade to convey background information of supporting characters. In the example above, with less than a page, we get to know several friends of Mei, even something about Mei herself, without dragging on through long descriptions.
The intimate reflection on everyday life of contemporary
For readers who are less familiar with
That said, there are some holes in the work. For one thing, the Ministry of State Security (analog of the FBI) did not exist until 1983, so some of the retrospective actions during the Cultural Revolution in late 1960s are not completely plausible. Still, compared with some other English fiction on
Ultimately, Mei Wang does not give in to the Chinese societal trap. Toward the end of the novel, Mei's true self, aloof and courageous as she is, does triumph. When her "guanxi" ends, she singular-handedly confronts each hypothesized suspect one by one, alone and determined. And sure enough, each confrontation takes her closer to the entire truth, until the case is solved.
At this point, however, this triumph should be read as the author's fictionalized ideal ending, rather than a depiction of the reality. After all, it is unlikely in reality that any private detective, not to mention a young woman apparently with no training in self-defense and no backup – would go to each (dangerous) suspect and point a finger at him, "You are the murderer, aren't you?" simply to see if he'll admit to it. A detective who relies on this approach wouldn't be the smartest one anyway.
So why does Diane Wei Liang make Mei Wang do this? One can find a partial answer from the author interview by her publisher, in which she explains:
Except guanxi is more like extra oil for an age-old societal machine than a cornerstone of Chinese culture. In any case "guanxi" is an external factor; the concept might assist a novelist to move forward a plot, but it can't enhance characterization, nor excite the reader. If Mei's entire investigation "operates according to it," the intricate behavior and actions would be absent. The final confrontations carried out by Mei Wang, therefore, are a last-ditch resolution for both the author and the central character.
This raises a key question: is this novel really a detective story? The answer is both yes and no. It is what the author sets out to make; it is not quite accepted as such by readers.
For detective genre readers, the fun of reading is solving a puzzle with the author. It is the chase of logical inference that is thrilling. In The Eye of Jade, however, this element is largely missing. Sure, Mei Wang confronts the suspects with her hypotheses, but when we see this, the hypotheses are already made. We read the conclusions without being letting in the process of reasoning, and we don't know how she gets there. This thrill is not quite there.Apparently, the author has a different idea about what this book should be. The Eye of Jade is the first in a series of "Mei Wang Mystery" novels, for which the author has a very interesting and intriguing concept. The interview mentioned above opens with the following Q and A:
That is exactly what she does in The Eye of Jade, and quite successfully. The social and economic aspects of life in
On the other hand, would a romance novel bother its readers for its lack of logic? No. One would have to be bothered by something else. This is to say, the genre label pre-sets reader expectations. It is a double-edged sword. It helps us find the right category for reading pleasure; it can also stop us from being entertained.
Therefore, the author has options. The smart idea of conveying modern