The one for the sake of Gongbao Chicken

Diane Wei Liang, The House of the Golden Spirit (French 2013)

I’m hesitant to say much about the book because I will be either too harsh or too soft. This is a mystery for which I cared little about who actually done it.

I read it because it’s about ordinary life in Beijing, especially in the eastern district of Chaoyang, that I called my home for more than two years. So every tiny allusion to a street, a building, a restaurant dish, a daily scene on the street was a sweet memory, and I can credit the writer for painting very real life snapshots of Beijing life. I also must say that the translation to French wasn’t quite as good, and I think that it must have been translated from English by someone who has never been to Beijing (some places are full of typos or have been mistaken for people’s names, but I am definitely finicky here and probably the only one to have noticed).

Wang Mei is an endearing character, a Security official turned private investigator in a dingy office, a single young woman with a thwarted love history, a daughter of a typically Chinese overbearing mother, whose love is expressed in food and who keeps asking about prospective marriage and grandchildren (Chinese mothers have a lot in common with Jewish mothers, I found out), a young woman who survived the Cultural Revolution with some untold family scars, like many people in China. She’s sometimes naive, but she knows that investigations, like any business in China moves forward thanks to guanxi, personal relationships, and she is clever enough to know when to use them.

I won’t really go into the plot, because I didn’t find that it was Ms Wei Liang’s forte, but I liked her characters well enough (especially the older policeman). She’s a Beijing parallel to Qiu Xiaolong’s mysteries who are set in Shanghai. Both writers seem to belong to the same generation of students who have left China after Tiananmen, and who have a critical view to the society’s evolutions. Common themes are corruption and making compromises with one’s values within the regime.

I’m not sure I’ll soon return to Diane Wei Liang’s remaining books in the series (this one is #3 and reads quite well as a standalone), but I sure look forward to eating some Chinese food! This book was a mouth-watering experience fueled with personal nostalgia.


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