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Becky Chan: A novel

by Becky Chan
291 pages,
ISBN: 088924300X


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Brief Reviews
by Shannon Cowan

Fiction
Although the inside cover of Jared Mitchell's latest novel, Becky Chan (Dundurn Press, 291 pages, $21.99 paper, ISBN: 088924300X), would have you believe that the novel is "strictly a work of the imagination," Mitchell exercises his formidable talents crafting a seamless backdrop to lead you to believe otherwise. He does this almost too well.

Shunned from urban Manitoba after "a bad life," Paul Hauer drifts into the British colony of Hong Kong during the turbulent period preceding mainland China's Cultural Revolution. Lonely and feckless, he works at a small English newspaper following newsworthy scoops throughout the world of Hong Kong cinema and the less glamorous proletariat rioting in Hong Kong streets. During his travels, Hauer meets Becky Chan, and over the course of three hundred artfully constructed pages (and twenty years), tells the story of his relationship with the Hong Kong movie starlet, recently gone missing from her home in Kowloon Tong.

The book weaves together Chan's rise from destitute orphan to national celebrity with Hauer's own anguished misadventures and the intense political upheaval of the time. So convincing is Mitchell that the novel is narrated not by Hauer, but by his working voice, the journalistic pen, removed from character or personality in such a way that entire newspapers ring with the large and undistinguishable sound of no one in particular. This is realistic, given the fact that Hauer is a reporter with the China Telegraph, but that doesn't make it any more readable. Instead of engaging with the people and events around him, Hauer reports on their looks, actions, emotions, and histories. He relays their stories as if he were on assignment, cleverly detached from things that should, in my estimation, affect him deeply. This detachment results in a crucial lack of empathy, a lack that I am only able to accept to a degree as a reader.

Some of this distance is reinforced by the fact that the novel takes place largely in the past. Hauer speaks through a series of exhaustive flashbacks, often giving second hand accounts of events that happen to other people just as he has done every day in his professional career. The crux of the plot, a beautiful and terrifying scene involving Becky and the consequences of events from her past, occurs away from the real time of the novel. Instead of experiencing the moment and all its exciting parts, we get the summarized version, filtered through Hauer.

Beyond the voice, Mitchell creates a unique and credible cast, illuminating the inner worlds of Hong Kong's movie workers, newspaper reporters, and the British-controlled Hong Kong Police Force. He inserts mock news columns from the China Telegraph, and an ingenious Becky Chan Filmography. He also sketches a moving portrait of the impoverished and disenfranchised "coolies," both in mainland China under Mao Tse Tung and Liu Shao-chi, and those living in Hong Kong's streets and tenements.

If only Mitchell wasn't so thorough, and if only he wasn't so convincing with his knowledge of journalistic prose and its inevitable emotional remoteness¨this novel could have breached the cool dullness of a newspaper narrative and delved into the psyche of some truly compelling characters. As it is Becky Chan is a stunning portrait of a tumultuous era, told in the voice of someone who doesn't know how to engage. ˛

Shannon Cowan

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