Tuesday, May 26, 2009

BAD TRAFFIC - Simon Lewis

When Inspector Jian, a Chinese cop, receives a cryptic call for help from his daughter in England, he drops everything and heads out to find her, despite not knowing how to read or speak English. Meanwhile Ding Ming and his wife Little Ye have been illegally transported to England to work for a Chinese gang in hopes of one day providing a better life for their family back home in China.

When Jian and Ding Ming's paths cross in rural England, sparks start flying. They can help each other but are both ignorant to that fact. Somehow, though, fate keeps bringing them back together and each encounter brings more action and adventure.

It certainly wasn't hard to figure out why BAD TRAFFIC was nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category. BAD TRAFFIC is a complex novel populated by complex characters dealing with complex themes. And just when you think it can't possibly get any darker, it does. This gritty, action-packed thriller keeps the reader mesmerized page after page.

While the novel takes place in rural England, it could be placed in almost any developed nation in the world, as illegal immigration and class distinction are common issues around the globe.

I found every aspect of this novel gripping, but I'm sure you won't find it surprising that I was most taken with the characters. There are no white hats in this book. At first glance one might assume Ding Ming to be a white-hatted character, but he's broken the law from the onset by illegally traveling to England. Jian is a crooked Chinese cop, but also has an ethical code that he seems to follow. The lack of white hats contributes to the severe darkness of the tone.

There were many elements of the novel that I thought Lewis did an exceptional job with, but one that stuck out stronger than most for me was his depiction of Jian's alienation in England. Jian is in a strange land and does not understand the language. He cannot read the street signs, billboards, even the paper with his daughter's address:

"Jian looked gloomily at a billboard across the street. The giant image of a pretty Asian girl flanked by a black man and a white man seemed to be taunting him. It was impossible to tell what it was advertising.

"The student had called a taxi for him. When it came he showed the driver a print-out teacher Delaware had made, lines of squiggles which apparently showed the address his daughter had given when she enrolled."

Not only can he not comprehend the written language, but the spoken language is also beyond his comprehension, Jian often hears flutters instead of comprehensible words. Even other Chinese people are foreign to him, as they speak a completely different dialect. The only thing Jian wants more than to return to the safety of his country is to avenge his daughter's murder. Ding Ming has the benefit of understanding the language because he studied English, but Ding Ming is a peasant and he's amazed by things as common as a automobile:

"'This is a car,' said the peasant. 'Will you look at this? There's a button here to change the angle of the wing mirror. That's a CD player. I think this is air con. It's like a spaceship.'"

Ding Ming simply wants to return to his "bosses." He fears for his family back in China who will have to pay his debut if he is assumed dead. And he wants more than anything to be reunited with his wife. Ding Ming's simplicity continues to convince him that he can only prosper if he returns to the ugliness of his new life, the evil bosses are the only people who will protect him and give him a chance to succeed.

Both men are lost in this foreign land. Instead of helping one another, they end up battling each other in addition to their enemies. The complexity of the two men and their relationship to one another challenged me as a reader to see all the dimensions of these characters. Lewis did an outstanding job developing them.

This is most definitely a book that is in contention for a top read of 2009 for me. Absolutely astounding effort by Simon Lewis.


Corey Wilde May 25, 2009 at 10:09 PM  

I had to go ahead and reserve a copy. If you're already short-listing it for year-end honors, this is one I want to read.

le0pard13 May 26, 2009 at 12:10 AM  

I can't recall at the moment where I first heard of this one, but they were equally enthusiastic about this novel. Great review, Jen.

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