Want Something Different to the Vast Amount of Book Traffic in the Saturated Rescue/Vengance Novel Genre?
Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis, is a breath of fresh air if you want something different from the rescue/avenge a loved one in a foreign land genre norm. It involves a father receiving a panicked call from his daughter in a faraway country, where there is no doubt she is in serious immediate danger. Of course the call is abruptly cut short with the worried father not knowing what has happened to his daughter, but unlike in say the movie Taken, the father doesn’t have unlimited resources and over the top fighting skills at his disposal. Nor does he have any contacts in the country that is not his own to help him out. He is however a police inspector, but Inspector Jian, a man used to having anyone do whatever he tells them out of fear throughout his career, lives in China. His daughter Wei Wei is supposed to be studying at a university in Leeds. Jian uses his status and the power that comes with it to get himself an emergency visa and flight to the UK but that’s where help that comes with who he is stops. He doesn’t speak a word of English, nor Cantonese, which the Chinese population in Leeds speaks (his dialect is Mandarin). Tracking down his daughter is further hindered when he eventually discovers his daughter hasn’t turned up to classes for a long time prior to her call and the roommate in the address listed by the university says she moved out a while ago and owes her money. His daughter has clearly being lying to him during her weekly phone call home. He’s going to have to figure out what exactly she has been doing in the UK if he’s any hope of finding her alive, or more likely making whoever killed her pay. He’s also going to have to work out all these cultural hurdles in the UK that are completely alien to him such as it is bad enough he has to use this weird toilet but what on earth is he supposed to do with his used toilet paper when the bin that should be there is not?
Meanwhile Ding Ming has just arrived, where exactly he has no idea, but somewhere in the UK, after an uncomfortable journey hidden in the back of a truck. He paid snakeheads a lot of money back in rural China, to come with his wife to work at “Gold Mountain” where they will earn enough money to no longer be peasant class and live like the elite when they return to their village. He’s not afraid of hard work, can speak a little English since he wasted his money on training to be a teacher, but like Inspector Jian is finding aspects of the UK completely terrifying and other aspects baffling, such as why do they give so much valuable farmland to one cow? He is also not happy his wife has been separated from him to pick flowers, and wonders when he’ll see her again but doesn’t want to offend his new boss Mister Kevin by continuously hassling him about getting her boss’ telephone number. Mr Kevin also wants him to do things he would be ashamed of in China but maybe this is how English men who are friends do things, and he wonders if he is offending him and hindering his chances of getting that phone number by not doing what Mister Kevin wants.
This novel works because of the language and cultural barriers. It is fascinating to see what we think of as normal life through the eyes of these Chinese characters and even how what we Westerners think of as cool Chinese culture influences in ours, such as Chinese language word tattoos on our bodies or Chinese food is seen by these characters. Simon Lewis the author has spent quite a bit of time immersed in the Chinese culture, and as well as having two other novels set there, Go and Border Run, Lewis has contributed to many travel guidebooks on China, so you do assume his fictional character’s views are quite authentic and representative of Chinese people who in real life come across to the UK, Australia, USA and other English speaking western countries. It is also eye opening to see the way we locals treat someone as if they are crazy if they are stressed and trying to communicate something they see as urgent in their own language, such as is done by the university security. You also get a good understanding of the illegal worker mindset of firstly why they risk their lives to be smuggled to the UK, Australia, Europe, North America and so on. The grip the people smugglers have on them and their families back home to do whatever they tell them, and why they fear the police (or people such as mechanics wearing uniforms they assume are police) and even locals, so much from what they are told by those around them. Also why they work for next to nothing and live in terrible cramped conditions where rent is of course taken from their low wages. I recently read another fiction book on illegal workers, those ones were from Mexico crossing the border into the USA called The Chicken Hanger by Ben Rehder. It was a shorter novel than this but also had interesting cultural fish out of water, language barrier hurdles to overcome by its characters.
The only thing that I think lets this great novel Bad Traffic down a little, is the too convenient ending that is also sort of like a Hollywood action film ending. Also although thankfully Jian and to a lesser extent Ding don’t have martial arts fighting abilities (and I hope if they ever turn this into a movie they are not given any), they do seem to be able to keep going after suffering injuries to a bit higher than believable level. However the rest of the novel is so well done you can’t really let those minor things fault the novel overall. Highly recommended if you want something different to everything else you’re probably reading.