The Walled City
Author: Ryan Graudin
Publisher: Little Brown
DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.
Ryan Graudin is a fellow blogspotter, although I don't personally know her. If I did, I suspect we'd have more than a few debates about religion! But that's neither here nor there. This novel is rooted in the truth of Hong Kong's Kowloon 'walled city' and it tells a fiction-based-in-fact story of how one adventure might have been. The story is sadly sweet and sweetly sad; it has an upbeat ending, but it pulls no punches in getting there. Main character Jin-Ling is yet another addition to my small but growing list of exemplars for all-too-many authors who simply don't get what a strong female character actually and truly is. Graudin does indeed get it. Jin-Ling is a charmer.
This is one of those novels which has chapters named in a rotation as each differing character tells their story in the first person. I'm not a fan of this method of writing because to me it's simply compounding the error of having a single first person narrator. None of it seems natural or organic to me, so I confess that I came into this slightly biased, wondering if the author could win me over, and it seems that she did! The narration wasn't irritating as I'd feared it would be when I began reading it.
The story is set in the Walled City, which used to be a fort, but now is a ghetto at best, and a prison at worst, where might makes right and gangs rule. The first character we meet is Jin-Ling, a girl masquerading as a boy. She's a thief and is, as we meet her, running through the city (which she knows very well), having stolen a pair of fine boots from Kuen, the brutal leader a young street gang.
The next chapter introduces Sun Dai Shing, who is looking to escape the walled city, but he cannot do so until he has achieved his aim. He has a deadline of only eighteen days to do this, but we're not told why, not at first. He coldly decides that Jun-ling is the ideal person to help him further his scheme. The last thing he expects is that in place of the mere tool he thought he was picking up, he was finding, instead, an ally and a friend.
Chapter three introduces yet another character, Mei Yee, who happens to be Jun-Ling's sister. In this city, girls are sex slaves and that's all there is to it (hence Jin-Ling's superficial gender change). This begs the question as to how the city manages to not only continue, but also to be so large if all the young girls are rendered unavailable for marital and procreative activity. Yet there was such a city.
Jin-Ling is not the only one in this city who is there by choice, but she volunteered not because it was a free choice: it became necessary that she do this when her mom died and her piece of trash father sold Mei Yee to the 'reapers' to bring her into the life of prostitution which awaits all girls here. Girls who try to run are simply rendered drug-dependent, and are kept imprisoned that way.
This is another author who uses the nonsensical phrase "it's so black it's almost blue". I've read that kind of phrase in more than one novel (including another one very recently!), and apart from it becoming a cliché, it makes me wonder where our language is going when we get oddball writing like that! Other than that one instance which nipped at me, the writing is very good, the description evocative, the conversations intelligent, the plot smart, and the story really endearing.
Dai's scheme involves him acquiring inside info on Longwai (I am not making these names up - the author is!), and this is why he needs Jin-Ling. Jin is to run drug deliveries for Longwai, while Dai sits as hostage, his life to be forfeited if Jin-Ling fails in any way. He hopes it will garner for him an 'in' into Longwai's operation. I didn't get this bit, I confess. Why would Longwai trust that this pair is going to be loyal to each other? It made little sense to me. Yes, he has a history with Dai, but he knows nothing of Jin and he does not seem to be the kind of person to trust anyone. On the other hand, he obviously has no problem with killing those who irritate him.
While awaiting Jin-Ling's return, Dai discovers that there's a window in the building through which he can contact one of the captive girls. Later, on the outside, he establishes contact and trust with her, asking her to find out things for him in return for giving her information about life away from the brothel - something which she craves, being both a captive and captivated by him. He doesn't know that this is Jin-Ling's sister since she hasn't told him she has one. Jin-Ling, who believes that her sister must be in that building because she's searched everywhere else, doesn't know that Dai is even talking with one of the girls.
Dai and Jin's arrangement seems to be working out quite well, even as both are sucked into Longwai's organization like it's quicksand. But then Jin has yet another run-in with Kuen, and some serious blood is spilled. This isn’t going to be the last which is spilled before this novel is over.
And that's all the teasing you get! I really recommend this as a great read. I kept feeling that it was set in a bygone age, for some reason, but it's very much a modern story. Aside from the names and an occasional mention of food, there seemed to me to be very little Chinese atmosphere here; indeed, the dialog and narration was very westernized, but that didn't bother me because the story itself was so good and it could have been set anywhere, in any time, and still told the same engrossing tale. It's definitely worth your time.