Halfway through The Eye of Jade, Diane Wei Liang’s debut as a mystery novelist, the author sends her young heroine on a lengthy journey across Beijing after dark. The novel, up to this point, much like its 29-year-old private investigator protagonist, has stumbled along. Both the book and its leading lady hit their respective strides after sundown, so to speak. In this nocturnal centerpiece, two old men accompany novice detective Mei Wang to a seedy mah-jongg parlor roguishly named Luck Come Together. The three of them have only just met, having been introduced by a chef known as the Wonton Queen, a detail that lends a certain improvisational charm to their adventure.
Liang describes the scene they find at Luck Come Together as this: “Beyond the kitchen lay a gambling room. Halogen tubes burned above the smoke, and the air was pungent with the sour smell of beer. The ceiling was low and the floor cold, yet no one seemed troubled. There was an atmosphere of calm, as in an opium den where the customers were on their third pipes.” Although much of her novel resonates with the contemporary banality of its late 1990s setting, Liang, in these passages, conjures the mood of a ’30s or ’40s film noir – a zone where the time of day invariably seems to be the middle of night.
The Eye of Jade nominally has to do with antiquities trafficking. An old family friend hires Mei to track the whereabouts of a jade seal from the Han Dynasty. Long believed to have been destroyed in the purges of the Cultural Revolution, the jade in question may or may not be trading hands amongst an assortment of shady businessmen. This, however, merely serves as window dressing to Liang’s real concerns, which are twofold.
First and foremost, she’s written a domestic drama wherein Mei’s self-worth suffers mightily next to her shallow, consumerist younger sister, a glamorous trophy wife who’s everything Mei isn’t. Worse still is their shrill nag of a mother, Ling Bai, whom Liang succinctly characterizes as a complete nightmare of over-sensitivity: “Before the Cultural Revolution ended…they moved around a lot…Mama became more fragile each time they moved. Mei and her sister learned not to do things that disturbed her. These might include noise, silence, things not in their proper place, dirt, and bad news.”
It’s Liang’s second concern that proves more elusive, yet gives the story a sense of Mei’s gnawing discontentedness. When Liang writes, “She thought about the golden dynasties of the past…somewhere behind her, she thought she heard the ghost of time,” there’s the implication that this distant past that eclipses the money and power obsessed culture of the present day, as well as the Red Guard era of her mother, holds a powerful attraction for Mei – it’s what she wants to belong to.
Unfortunately, Liang underscores this suggestion with all too brutal contrasts that twice bring the novel to a screeching halt. Both occasions involve Mei reuniting with her college chums, a herd of loud, vexatious caricatures whose petty, generic (and usually drunken) squabbles would send anyone into protective retreat. Liang doesn’t need these thudding distractions; the author handles the detective angle so compellingly, such as the moment Mei impersonates a railway bureau official to have her way with a stationmaster’s records, that anything less impedes the book’s real reason for being. – N.P. THOMPSON
Originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly.