Friday, March 23, 2018

A Young Taiwanese Man finds Heartache and Danger During Ghost Month

Ghost Month is set mostly in the bustling night market in Taipei. The protagonist, Jing-nan runs a food stand there, which he inherited from his parents. He also inherited a huge debt that was initially incurred by Jing-nan's grandfather and which has been passed down to him along with the food stand. Jing-nan once had dreams of escaping to America, going to college there, and then remaining in the U.S., along with his girlfriend, Julia, who has been the love of his life since high school. But the death of Jing-nan's parents has left him with no choice but to drop out of college, return to Taiwan, and take over the family business.

His dreams shattered, Jing-nan returns home, still harboring the faint dream that he will someday, somehow escape this destiny and reunite with Julia. He has told her, though, that he will have no contact with her until he is able to do so. Several years have now passed, and his dream has largely disappeared.

Ghost Month, which generally falls in August, is a very superstitious time for many residents of Taiwan. They are particularly attentive to the spirits during the month, and their conduct is circumscribed by the traditions that accompany the month. Jing-nan is not religious and believes in none of this "nonsense." But reading the paper one morning, he is shocked to see that Julia has been murdered. Without his knowing it, Julia too had returned to Taiwan and had been working as a "betel nut beauty"--a scantily clad woman who sits in a roadside stand and sells betel nuts to passing motorists. The job is only a small step short of prostitution and Jing-nan is stunned to learn that Julia has returned and that she has been reduced to these circumstances.

Grieving, Jing-nan pays a courtesy call to Julia's parents. They believe that the police are making no significant effort to find Julia's killer and ask Jing-nan to see what he can discover. Jing-nan agrees and soon finds that he's stirred up a hornets' nest and that he's now in serious danger himself.

This is on the whole, a very good book. My only complaint is that Lin has spent so much time developing the setting that the story suffers in the process. He devotes a great deal of time to the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions on Taiwan, and as a result the reader feels as if he or she were actually on the island, riding behind Jing-nan on his moped. The problem, though, is that every time the story begins to gain momentum, Ling detours off into a discussion of local customs or some such thing, and the tension drops about four levels.

Reading this book, I kept thinking about Martin Limon and his excellent series which is set in South Korea. Those books are also excellent in describing the setting in which the plots play out. But Limon has a way of working these details into the stories so that they don't interfere with the action. Lin's book suffers a bit by comparison and thus three stars for me rather than four.

No comments:

Post a Comment