`Paper Butterfly' is the second novel in the series featuring Mei Wang, a private investigator working in Beijing in the 1990s. Following a recommendation from her `well-connected' sister, Mei is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young starlet called Kaili. In a parallel narrative, we learn about a young man called Lin, who was imprisoned after he played a part in the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square (it would seem that Diane Wei Liang is well placed to write about this as she was there herself.) It is only later in the novel that we find out how these two seemingly unconnected narratives collide.
I was attracted to `Paper Butterfly' because I love Qiu Xiaolong's books (especially `Death of a Red Herione)and there seemed to be a lot of similarities in content. For a start, the time period is similar, both are set in the late 1980's to early 1990s and are set in Beijing, and both deal with crime, Chinese culture and politics. `Paper Butterfly' is an altogether different type of novel though. The writing is much sparser and the plot is not as involved as you might expect. However, there is a similar beauty to be found in the description.
In some ways I was disappointed that this wasn't a more political book and didn't deal with the forces working against Mei Wang behind the scenes; we really only saw things from her perspective. I also think that comparisons between this book and Bridget Jones are pretty facile. Ok, so Mei is single and has some pressure from her family to get married, but this really isn't a major part of the book.
This is a simple and well-written book and I'll look forward to reading others in the series to tide me over whilst in waiting for the next instalments of Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen mysteries.
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First Sentence: On they went, singing, "Communism is the red lantern of our heart" their voices soaring above the bitter wind.
Mei Wang, an information consultant because it is illegal to be a private investigator in China, has been hired to locate a famous starlet, Kaili. Kaili disappeared from her dressing room after a performance. In going through Kaili's things, Mei finds a delicate, intricate paper butterfly, once made as a gift to the dead, on which is the initial "L." Lin was a young man imprisoned during Tiananmen Square. The past and present, including Mei's past, must come together to solve the mystery.
It is the setting that makes this book particularly interesting. Liang conveys life in contemporary China and the contrast between those who live in the country versus the city; those who are poor versus those with money in a different culture in a way that is integral to the story and informative at the same time.
However, no matter one's socio-economic position, food plays an important role. The meals, to a Westerner, weren't always appealing, but the descriptions imparted the significance of food as part of life and hospitality.
The politics of China, past and present, were key. Seeing China from the eyes of one raised there, makes me very grateful to live here.
I don't mean to make the book sound dry; it's not at all. It is a story of family, love, misunderstandings, and politics. The story is well-plotted but very spare in style. We get to know the characters without every really knowing them at all.
The story is well-written, thoroughly intriguing, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.
The author, Diane Wei Liang was born in China where she spent her early childhood years with her parents in a labour camp in a remote region of China. She was also involved in the student democracy movement in the 1980s and was one of those in Tiananmen Square in that fateful month of June, 1989. This personal experience shines through in the book in the creation of characters and account of life in China.
What I found particularly vivid was the importance of food in China. Nearly every meal is described; many of them mouth-wateringly delicious. One or two sounded awful (boiled tripe in chilli broth, anyone?).
There are three significant events alluded to in THE PAPER BUTTERFLY, the impact of which is quite startling. The Great Leap forward in the late 1950s drastically changed the lives of nearly everyone in China. The 1960s saw the Cultural Revolution, with destruction of historical sites, the outlawing of many traditional cultural practices and the displacement and deaths of millions. It was an ugly time and those events had long-reaching effects. And finally Tiananmen Square which forced the Chinese to realise that there were going to be limits to the new-found freedoms that had been granted to them.
The main theme of THE PAPER BUTTERFLY is how these events impacted on individuals. The mystery is merely a means to an end. I learned a lot about China, its history and people reading this book. It also serves as a powerful reminder not to judge the people of a country by the actions of its leaders.
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