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Fast-paced, darkly humorous, and fun

Rock Paper Tiger

Title: Rock Paper Tiger
By: Lisa Brackmann

In Rock Paper Tiger, we meet Ellie McEnroe Cooper, an American Iraq War veteran who has followed her husband and his job to Beijing. Ellie’s husband, also an Iraq War veteran, has fallen in love with a Chinese woman, and is asking for a divorce. Ellie cannot bring herself to sign the divorce papers, and she has no intention of returning to America. Complicating matters, she is nursing an explosives-related leg injury that hasn’t healed, and has post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from another (as yet unspecified) nightmare she lived through in Iraq.

Lao Zhang (also known as the dissident artist, Zhang Jianli), an artist who is more than just a friend, introduces Ellie to an Uighur, a Turkish ethnic living in China. Following their meeting, both Lao Zhang and the Uighur vanish. The Uighur is under government suspicion of being an Islamic terrorist, and it is likely that Lao Zhang has also come under suspicion and has fled. With Lao Zhang aka Zhang Jianli missing, the future of the edgy arts community he founded also is endangered. Ellie feels most at home in this community, and wants to save it. She needs answers.

Agents from multiple security agencies, Chinese and American, spy on Ellie as she travels about China searching for clues as to Lao Zhang’s whereabouts. She has a glimmer of hope when a group of avatars claiming to be friends make contact with her through a government-unsupervised Internet game. Is Ellie safe playing the game? Should she trust the avatars? Events eventually come to a head, and we learn about the trauma Ellie experienced in Iraq.

Everyone and everything appears intentionally off-kilter in Brackmann’s story. How well does the setting reflect modern China? How closely does Ellie’s experience typify the veteran-expatriate experience? I don’t know. The author paints a light brushstroke against a canvas of highly serious subjects--torture and war, to name a couple. The book’s appeal is Brackmann’s willingness to take risks. It is interesting to suppose the vulnerabilities of a female veteran of the Iraq War. Ellie initially is characterized as a deeply immobilized young woman. I was hooked by her shows of independence and spirit of rebellion--against her broken body, a morally-challenged husband, and the seemingly ludicrous agendas of government agents.

This is the first of a series featuring Ellie. I’ll read the next one on some weekend when I don’t want to think too deeply about serious subjects like war or international politics, or government oppression or espionage, and merely want to go for another roller coaster ride through a character finding her way in an imagined China.

Note: if you prefer more literary titles that are similarly atmospheric, fast-paced, darkly humorous, and fun, you may enjoy Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. If you enjoy reading books featuring expatriates in China, I recommend Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 2:04 a.m.

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