I really enjoyed this book which my reading group are going to discuss at our next meeting in May. It tells the story of Angie, an unhappy woman who drinks too much following the death of her mum; she's also estranged from her brother and lives a lonely life. The book starts in 2004 on a freezing evening ( I almost found myself shivering reading the first two pages alone!) on Morecambe sea front, when Angie is sitting in her car considering ending her life. What actually happens is that she rescues Wen, a Chinese cockle picker, from drowning. (It was true that a couple of the cockle pickers in the Morecambe Bay tragedy were never found.) Angie takes Wen home and this is where the story really sweeps you in. Wen has a twin sister in China, called Lili, who is grieving for him, as their parents were killed in an earthquake and they were lucky to survive. The writer follows the story of Wen as he tries to make a life for himself in spite of owing a large amount of money to the snakeheads who organised his move to the UK. There are twists and turns in the story and moments of tension that are very well written and kept me turning the pages, though I won't give away what they are. This book is well worth a read. I've heard it was a Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 last year, though I didn't hear it, but wish I had.
This book makes you think again. A great read and I have bought another Betsy Tobin book to try.
on 1 March 2011
I saw this book briefly featured in the books section of a woman's magazine ,the synopsis caught my eye, reminding me of the horrific deaths of the cockle pickers in 2004.The book starts on that night with Wen's story & moves between London,The North East & China. Intertwined with this is the story of his twin sister who comes from China to look for him.
Although the subject matter is undoubtedly depressing,the book races along - it's a really good read, part thriller, part a rather unorthodox love story. The characters are extremely well drawn & believable. A stark reminder of how tough a migrant workers life over here must be - highly recommended !
on 28 March 2011
I first listened to Crimson China on radio 4's Book at Bedtime; I decided to read the book as I had enjoyed it so much. It's a good believable story, the characters come across as real people, when I had finished reading the book I was hoping things worked out for Wen and Angie and that maybe Angie would stop drinking so much, had to remind myself they were fictional characters. I would highly recommend this book.
This book slightly underwhlemed me which is probably why it's taken me a while to review. I am stuggling somewhat to review it too as I keep finding myself wanting to relay the plot rather that my feelings about the book as, to be honest, I didn't really connect with any of the characters.
To briefly summarise the plot: Wen is an illegal immigrant from China who gets caught up in the Morceombe Bay tragedy (for those who aren't aware - this actually happened in Britain several years ago when over 20 illegal Chinese immigrants drowned while picking cockles for very little pay on Morecombe beach at night). Wen survives when he is rescued by Amgie who is a woman who is an alcaholic has decided to commit suicide on that very beach at the same time. Angie makes a last minute decision to save both herslef and Wen instead. After Wen is assumed dead, his twin sister Lili flies over to the UK as she can't quite believe he is dead and is determined to track down his last known movements to get some closure. She doesn't get what she bargained for as Wen is very much alive.
While this was not a bad book in any way, in fact on the whole I did enjoy reading it, it did however have the potential to be so much more. I would have liked the book to really bring the plights of the people involved and also their families who also had to suffer the consequences, to life. It never really pressed home to me the devestation of that night and the aftermath and nor did I ever feel fully engaged with any of the characters. Having said that, there were many good points too - in particular I liked the character of Wen: although I never felt he was fully fleshed enough to get to know him properly, I did like his observations of Englishness through his watching of Angie when she took him home.
What I liked about the book was the fact that it opens our eyes to immigrants in this country (both legal and illegal). The fact that everything is strange and foreign, our customs and eating habbits are different as well as the language barrier in many cases. It's often easy to overlook why people have made the decision to leave everything they know and step into the unknown in search of work or a better life for their families. Crimson China goes some way to highlighting that, but again I never felt it was fully explored. If you want to read a truly fantastic book about coming to England as a foreigner then read Rose Tremain's The Road Home - it is brilliant!
In summary - I enjoyed reading this but didn't feel it went deep enough into any issue and I didn't have any particular bond with any one character. Good story if your expectations aren't too high.
on 5 April 2011
I really enjoyed this book. Angie one night is on Morecambe Bay seafront trying to come to terms with the death of her mother, she also drinks too much. There is a storm and she ends up resucing Wen ( a chinese cockle picker)and taking him back to her house. The story then has you totally hooked, Wen also has a twin sister Lili and she has come from China because she was told Wen had died and she still feels that he is alive. The book is really good as it alternate's each chapter to either Wen or Lili and you follow how Wen is trying to make a life for himself and Lili is searching for her brother. There is also a nice little twist as Wen has got mixed up with the 'Snakehead' gang back in China and they have followed him. Well worth reading.
I am very sparing with my 5 stars, but this book thoroughly deserved them. I felt sad when the book ended, I wanted it to continue. Wen and Lili are so well portrayed, you feel like you know them. I have read several books on how difficult it can be for immigrants and all the various probelms they face, and it is so interesting to learn of different cultures. So many things that we take for granted - a book like this one is very good at raising awareness to the plight of others. What happened at Morecambe Bay was a tragedy, such tragedies abound all over the world every second. I like the way the author took the fact that two out of the twenty-one Chinese migrant workers were listed as missing and their bodies were never recovered, and so she wove a story around one of them as to what might have happened. Everything was written simmply and realistically with a minimum of fuss, and yet so completely effective. I shall be very interested to seek out more of this author's work.
A thoughtful novel about Chinese immigration - both illegal and legal - to Britain. Wen, a restless young Chinese man, comes to England as an illegal immigrant, borrowing a large sum of money to enable him to do so. After various misadventures and unpleasant manual jobs, he ends up as one of the ill-fated cockle gang working at Morecambe Bay. While most of his fellow-workers are drowned in a horrible incident. Wen is rescued by alcoholic depressive Angie, who takes him in. The two, surprisingly, prove good for each other - Angie curbs her drinking, and learns to enjoy food, Wen cooks, gardens, and loses the restlessness that has plagued him throughout life. But he's not entirely safe - he's still illegal, and the gang who helped him get over to Britain are after their money... Wen's story runs alongside that of his sister Lili (which begins six months later). Lili comes to England after what she believes to have been Wen's death to try to make a life for herself as an English teacher, and to see where her brother died. Better qualified than her brother, she's able to get a job in a language school, and after an awkward stay with her former friend Jin, finds a position as au pair to a little Chinese girl and home-help to her widowed English father Adrian. But Lili can't shake off the feeling that there's something odd about Wen's death. Why is Jin so secretive? Who are the strange men who seem to be stalking Lili? Could Wen still be alive? The two stories converge as the 'loan sharks' get on Wen's trail, and determine to exact revenge.
I tried one of Tobin's earlier novels, about a Victorian circus, but was put off by the horrific descriptions of animal cruelty (no offence to Tobin - I'm sure she was only describing what happened). I got on better with this book - although Tobin's writing's mostly been historical fiction, she seems actually happier in a contemporary idiom. Her discussion of the life of immigrants in London, her descriptions of China post Chairman Mao and her evocation of Wen and Lili's close but troubled relationship are brilliant and moving. She brings London - as seen through the eyes of a foreigner - wonderfully to life, and manages to make the reader truly sympathize with Wen, even though he has not behaved at all well in his past. Her descriptions of the sort of manual work that immigrants are given were some of the strongest I've read since Amanda Craig's 'Hearts and Minds' and Rose Tremain's 'The Road Home'. And there's a real, and frightening, sense of tension as Wen realizes that his 'faked death' hasn't worked.
The one thing that I felt worked less well in the book was Tobin's depiction of the English characters - compared to the very vivid Chinese ones, they remained thinly sketched. Wen's relationship with Angie was just about believable - two lonely and frightened people clinging together - but Angie herself remained a mystery. We learnt virtually nothing about her relationship with her mother (other than 'they didn't get on'), about what her brother had done wrong, or about her marriage, and her constant whisky-swigging could seem more like self-indulgence than depression. Our lack of knowledge about Angie made her ultimately quite hard to engage with. I could have done with more about her neighbour Miriam too, a rather lovely character. And as for Adrian, the Englishman who takes Lili in - after a promising start, I found him a puzzle. Did he regret adopting a child, only to end up after his wife's death as a single dad? Was he attracted to Lili, was he genuinely compassionate towards her, or was he just using her as a convenient au pair girl, so that she could rear his daughter May and he could get on with finding a new partner? How much was Lili truly attracted to him? How good a father was he, really? I was surprised by how little I liked him as the story went on - and I'm sure if we'd got more of the story from his point of view, I might have understood him more - unless we were meant to dislike him?
I also felt the ending left, for this sort of quite traditionally-constructed novel, rather too many loose ends, particularly in Lili's side of the story. However, there were enough pleasures on the way, and enough beautiful and thoughtful writing, for me to warmly recommend this book to anyone interested in China, or the immigrant experience in London.
on 7 June 2011
This is an absorbing story in which two very different cultures are contrasted but which, nevertheless, shows that underneath we are all pretty much the same, despite differences of race, colour, creed and upbringing.
Other reviewers have already outlined the story, and I would just say that the book concerns an illegal Chinese immigrant who somehow survives the tragic events which took place in Morecambe Bay in February 2004, when more than twenty Chinese cockle pickers were swept away and drowned by the fast-running tide. This man has come to England to seek his fortune, having borrowed a huge amount of money from the Chinese "snakehead" moneylenders. He knows that he has to pay this money back and, despite finding that the streets of Britain are not paved with gold and having to work long hours at demeaning and unpleasant jobs for a mere pittance, has managed to keep his instalment payments up at the time of the accident. He then finds himself unable to continue with the payments and must hide from those whom he knows will be pursuing him for his debt. He is taken in by the woman who rescued him but she has her own demons to contend with. The two are able to help and support each other and a relationship of sorts develops. Enter then the man's twin sister who has flown in (legally) from China to find out what has happened to her brother and to work as a teacher of Mandarin. Her presence brings into the story quite another thread. The tale moves back and forth between the time of the cockle pickers' tragedy and the first weeks of the sister's presence in England about six months later. The book does not have a huge cast of characters, which helps in cases where the plot frequently moves back anf forth from one timescale to another.
The contrast between the two cultures is sympathetically dealt with and the author has obviously done a great deal of careful research as she includes quite a lot of (interesting) information about the Chinese way of life, both in China and that of the immigrant community in Britain. She handles with compassion the plight of the illegal immigrant who is at the mercy of hard taskmasters who use him to line their own pockets, since he has no way of protesting. The "flashbacks" do not confuse, and what could just have been a simple romance has far more depth, with the addition of elements of the thriller and the interwoven stories of the siblings.
This is an unusual book and I enjoyed it. Had I just seen it in a bookshop, I would have probably passed it by: the cover is misleading in that it would seem to indicate a romance. However, I was first able to read the Amazon reviews and then download a free sample of the book to my Kindle, which resulted in my extending my reading to something that I would not normally have considered. All the more reason to love my Kindle!