Friday, July 5, 2013

Book review: The Nine Fold Heaven by Mingmei Yip

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Come along with an ex-spy as she returns to Shanghai where she’s a wanted woman – but she has to search for her baby and her lost lover. Is her baby really alive? Will she be able to find her lover? Can she elude the police long enough to find them? Learn much more about Nine Fold Heaven and Mingmei Yip at http://www.mingmeiyip.com and get your copy of this exciting and exotic novel at http://www.amazon.com/The-Nine-Fold-Heaven-Mingmei/dp/0758273541/
Nine Fold Heaven is part of a series about Camilla the songbird and female spy – you can also read Skeleton Women, the first book about Camilla. http://www.amazon.com/Skeleton-Women-Mingmei-Yip/dp/B00D9TPPCW

The era of this novel is pre-revolutionary China; the action switches between Hong Kong, where Camilla is hiding out, and her former home, Shanghai. In a world ruled by rich, ruthless mobsters, women have little value and Camilla has learned to be heartless to survive. I think that has to be the key to Camilla, whom I had a bit of trouble liking as she appears unable to remain faithful to one man at a time. There is an element of romance in the story--Camilla is desperate to recover her lover Jinying and their son Jinjin, both of whom may be dead--but as a counterpoint to the great love of her life she also leads on American ambassador Edward Miller and re-involves herself with the gangster Gao, who was her lover in Skeleton Women

I haven't read Skeleton Women but I can quite easily accept that the involvement with Gao predated or was simultaneous with the relationship with Jinying, while Camilla's seduction of Edward, a newly introduced character, is a matter of expediency. But the expediency angle is one of my problems with Camilla, who has a tendency just to let things happen to her as she wanders between Shanghai and Hong Kong with what is supposed to be the tenacious aim of finding out whether her baby and his father are alive and recovering them if they are. If Yip is exploring whether a woman can love three men at the same time (really two, because Edward simply disappears from the scene after a while) I would have liked to have seen more conflict around this point; otherwise, what precisely is the role of the extraneous men other than to push the plot along? Or are they simply part of the cast of secondary characters, in which case why do they all have to fall for Camilla?

On the other hand, I found myself thinking, Camilla's seemingly aimless encounters could have something to do with the Buddhist version of karma, a theme that pervades the novel. The tone is set when Camilla visits a temple in Hong Kong at the beginning of the book and consults a fortune-teller about her forthcoming search for her lover and son. He tells her "Let the wind steer your boat, move forward, have no fear" and that's pretty much what she does.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this novel is the superstitious nature of the Chinese. Camilla both participates in this superstitious behavior and manipulates it, often showing a wary detachment in her attitude toward superstition that may, I suspect, mirror the feelings of an author who is comfortable in both the Asian and the Western worlds. 

In other respects, this is a very Chinese book. Even the writing style and punctuation often seem to come more from the Chinese language than English. This can be both fascinating and distracting, depending on where you stand as a reader. The plot's dependence on coincidence is also a novelistic device rarely used in the West these days but again, consistent with the novel's themes of karma and luck. 

If you're looking for a fast-moving story that immerses the reader in an exotic setting, you'll be happy. The Nine Fold Heaven certainly led me into a deeper understanding of the lives of women in a place and time where women only have two weapons: their beauty--while it lasts--and their respectability--if they are able to use their beauty to attain the status of a married woman. I suspect that Camilla's struggle to find her faithful lover and her son have as much to do with clawing herself up to a higher status in society as with devoted love, although she does not seem to have that insight about herself.

I spotted a couple of anachronisms: plastic cars in the hands of a child and a portable radio do not belong to the 1930s. There was not a great deal of specific detail to tie me into the 1930s, but I did enjoy the sense of a chaotic, decadent underworld where the struggle to survive and thrive is a game of chance played by powerful men and devious women, life has little value but reincarnation is forever, and superstition and luck can make or break the players.

About Mingmei Yip

Mingmei Yip has been writing and publishing since she was fourteen years old and now she has twelve books to her credit. Her five novels are published by Kensington Books and her two children’s books are published by Tuttle Publishing.

Mingmei is also a renowned qin (ancient string instrument) musician, calligrapher and painter. In Hong Kong, she was a columnist for seven major newspapers. She has appeared on over sixty TV and radio programs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and the US. Visit Mingmei at: www.mingmeiyip.com