Liang, Diane Wei - 'Paper Butterfly'
PAPER BUTTERFLY by Diane Wei Liang is the follow up to THE EYE OF JADE, both featuring Beijing private investigator Wang Mei. This review is written at a rather topical time, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the ill-fated Tianamen square student protests, whose after effects reverberate throughout PAPER BUTTERFLY.
Mei has a new client. A Svengali-like record company boss, Peng, has instructed her to track down his latest starlet, Kaili who has vanished after a concert. At first no-one, including Mei, is particularly concerned about Kaili's disappearance as Kaili is rather spoilt and has a weakness for men and drugs, so a disappearance isn't out of character. Both Peng's secretary Miss Pink and Kaili's assistant seem quite content that Kaili is out of the picture, as she's a demanding boss, and took Miss Pink's place as Peng's lover.
When Mei goes through Kaili's belongings in her down-at-heel suburban apartment she revises her view of the singer. She sees hidden depths to Kaili when she finds the paper butterfly of the title and love letters to "L" amongst Kaili's belongs. The letters show Kaili led a youthful life rather removed from her current decadent lifestyle; she was idealistic and involved in the student protests at Tianamen square together with the mysterious "L". Mei then finds out that Kaili had mysterious business in the hutongs (alleyways) near the Drum Tower, and tries to trace her steps through the homes and eateries of the alleyways, assisted by Inspector Chen, both resisting pressure from Peng to leave things be. As Mei carries out her investigation into Kaili, she reflects with some guilt upon her own lack of involvement in Tianamen Square.
Whilst Mei is tracking down Kaili, the novel alternates with the story of Ling, a political prisoner for many years following Tianamen Square. He is eventually released from a hard labour camp far from Beijing several months before Kailee's disappearance. With minimal money Ling has to work his way back slowly to his old home, finding whatever work is available for someone with his chequered history. It is clear that Ling has a hair-trigger temper, and wishes to avenge himself on those responsible for his betrayal to the authorities. Eventually Kaili's and Ling's paths cross, but not quite in the way the reader might have anticipated.
Characterisation, in particular of Mei and her family is subtle and convincing. Mei's relationship with her mother is still somewhat strained following the discoveries she made about her family history in the previous novel in this series, THE EYE OF JADE, and Mei has very different priorities to her wealthy, well-connected TV-presenter sister. Beijing is shown as a city of contrasts between the modest living conditions of the many, with shared kitchens, cramped housing, and old style alleyways and cafes and the privileged decadence of the wealthy, with cars, luxury gated apartment complexes and private clubs.
PAPER BUTTERFLY is a surprisingly gentle and reflective novel, written with the delicacy of the paper creature of the title. It is as much a novel about modern China as a conventional detective story. History both fairly recent (Tianamen Square) and less recent (the Cultural Revolution) casts a shadow on Mei and the other characters in this book. PAPER BUTTERFLY is a little gem of a book, well worth a read by anyone looking for an interesting perspective on the conventional private investigator novel.
Read another review of PAPER BUTTERFLY.
Laura Root, England