White Ginger by Thatcher Robinson
White Ginger by Thatcher Robinson (Seventh Street Books, 2013) is a book I want to like, but I’m not quite sure it’s good enough. Yes, sadly, it’s another of these first novels that’s promising and making moves in all the right directions but, somehow, just doesn’t quite stand up when you look back at the experience. For you to understand without my getting heavily into spoiler territory is a problem, so I’ll go with a kind of introduction to the set-up and then take one or two scenes out of context to illustrate the problems.
The book revolves around Chinatown and the life of a young woman whose father was a very senior member of a Triad. She has the brains, if not quite the temperament, to follow in her father’s footsteps, but Triads are not exactly into gender equality. This leaves her with the status of Princess, i.e. she’s financially independent and protected, but not allowed any role in organised wrongdoing. This has not prevented the police, FBI and other law enforcement agencies with letters rather than names, from taking an interest in her. Many have tried to link her to crime or to encourage her to get into crime so she can inform on everyone. The result has been pain on all sides and a kind of armed truce now prevails. To pass the time, she sets herself up as a “retrieval artist”, i.e. she finds people who have disappeared.
Now did you notice I offered you a term you might not be familiar with and then immediately translated it for you. That was pretty patronising of me, wasn’t it. After all, everyone has read the Rusch series with that name or could guess what it meant. Now suppose I decided to write a book involving lots of people speaking a foreign language. If I wanted to, I could fill the dialogue with lots of vocabulary from that language (with an extensive appendix offering translations), or I could use foreign terms (immediately followed by a translation and/or explanation of cultural implications), or I could just announce that all my Triad members and their immediate circle were speaking in Cantonese (or Mandarin if they have been infiltrated by mainlanders) and write the book in English.
So our heroine and her gay minder/friend are sitting in their office when a young girl enters to report her fifteen-year-old BFF has been sold into slavery (or worse). This starts us off on the journey and, to show us how serious it all is, we have several bodies in fairly short order and a professional assassin tries to kill her (airports these days have just the most terrible security, darling, you can’t go anywhere without someone trying to strangle you with a diamond-studded garrotte). You should now be getting a feel for this. It’s fairly bloodthirsty with the girl she’s chasing severely beaten, but the tone is slightly surreal. The chapter titles are like Chinese idioms and some are faintly amusing. And then there are these odd episodes.
Let’s say you’re on the twentieth floor of an upmarket hotel. It’s the early hours of the morning and you’re a little stressed so you decide to walk down. As you step out on to the staircase, you hear a door closing below you. There are voices, one of which you recognise. The first exchange these men have confirms it perfectly safe to talk without whispering because no-one ever uses the stairs at this hour of the night. Now I could be charitable and say this is an author playing with the conventions of thrillers and producing a moment of gentle humour. Moving on. We all know Triads traditionally used axes so our heroine purloins an axe and hefting said weapon for the first time, stands exactly the right distance in front of lift doors (she knows instinctively which lift to stand in front of). As the doors open, she throws the axe which, in the distance available, executes a delicate 360 degree rotation and buries itself between the eyes of the local bad man. Thank whichever deity you want that it was the right man, standing in exactly the right position, without anyone else in the lift to witness this murder. Yes, our retrieval artist is a killer when the mood takes her that way. She would make a good member of the Triads if only they could get their heads around sex discrimination legislation and admit her to their male-only club. As a fully-paid-up member of the cack-handed family, I know any attempt I made to throw an axe at someone would most likely hit the lift door, miss the person altogether, hit the henchperson on the foot, or cause the handle to hit my intended victim on the arm. We’re supposed to accept this supernatural strike because, earlier in the book, she demonstrated knife-tossing skills.
You might wonder why I’m bother to continue writing. The answer lies in the plot. Although the final climax is a terrible cliché — deserted airport, convoys of armed people approaching from opposite sides of the runways, and so on — the main thrust of events is very cleverly put together. This leads me back to the dilemma. For all everything depends on a shrewd intervention that’s not properly explained, I liked the ideas on display. As a first novel, the translation into words on the page was somewhat amateurish. No real surprise. With better editorial input, Wild Ginger could have been great. Shame really.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.