||First Novels - Stolen China, Stolen Dory
by Eva Tihanyi
It's no easy thing to write a political novel that never forgets that it's first and foremost a novel. In Stolen China (McClelland & Stewart, 254 pages, $26.99 cloth), John Fraser has succeeded in doing exactly that. Making good use of his journalism background (he was the Globe and Mail's Peking correspondent and is a former editor of Saturday Night), he weaves a story of intrigue and political corruption in China.
The book opens in 1979. Mao is dead, the Gang of Four is gone, and relations with the capitalist West are improving. Jamie Halpert, Peking correspondent for a highly respected Toronto newspaper, has split up with his wife because he values his friendship with the charming but obnoxious Gordon Wrye more than he values his marriage. It is Gordon who has provided the material for many of the articles that have earned Jamie an international reputation, and with only three weeks left before he returns to Toronto from his posting, he is eager to file one last piece. This one is also based on a tip from Gordon and concerns an ancient Sung dynasty tomb in the remote village of Kung-hsien. What he originally figures will be an easy story turns into something far more sinister and complex.
When Gordon is found murdered in Jamie's garage in the foreign compound, he takes it upon himself to save Sui-San, Gordon's Chinese girlfriend, who is already in trouble for her involvement with Gordon. When next we meet up with them, it is 1989. Sui-San, now Susan, and Jamie are married and living in Toronto, where he is languishing at a dull desk job at the paper. He is deeply unhappy, not only because the paper has been taken over by an editor whose idea of journalism is frill pieces to keep the masses entertained and advertising revenue high, but also because Gordon's death continues to haunt him. Jamie is on a downward spiral. He never did do the book on China that he had planned to do upon his return, he's lost interest in his job, and his marriage to Susan is more an act of loyalty to his dead friend than an act of love toward her. Eventually, he hits bottom and, just as he starts slowly to climb back up, he's set reeling by a shock that forces him to re-evaluate the last fifteen years of his life.
Stolen China is crisply written, politically insightful, and never dull. However, there are several plot lines that are introduced but never satisfactorily resolved, and the surprise ending is not entirely convincing.