PAPER BUTTERFLY
Diane Wei Liang

 


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Pan Macmillan Australia. This edition published March 2008
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

Mei Wang is a product of the new China. She works for herself running an “information consultancy” (private detective agencies are illegal, after all).

Mei is hired by a record company executive to find one of their new up-and-coming singing stars. Kaili hasn’t been seen since her last live concert. She just disappeared from her dressing room. The company want her disappearance kept quiet.

Mei’s initial reaction is to think that this spoilt diva has checked into a spa or a rehab clinic. A search of Kaili’s surprisingly modest apartment reveals a young woman with much more depth. Hidden away, Mei finds a delicate paper butterfly and a number of love letters written in June, 1989 from a politically active student.

Mei’s search takes her from the superficial glitz and glamour of modern-day Beijing to the poorly-lit back alleys where elderly residents still keep alive old superstitions and beliefs.

The author, Diane Wei Liang, was born in China where she spent her early childhood years with her parents in a labour camp in a remote region of China. She was also involved in the student democracy movement in the 1980s and was one of those in Tiananmen Square in that fateful month of June, 1989. This personal experience shines through in the book in the creation of characters and account of life in China.

What I found particularly vivid was the importance of food in China. Nearly every meal is described; many of them mouth-wateringly delicious. One or two sounded awful (boiled tripe in chilli broth, anyone?).

There are three significant events alluded to in THE PAPER BUTTERFLY, the impact of which are quite startling. The Great Leap forward in the late 1950s drastically changed the lives of nearly everyone in China. The 1960s saw the Cultural Revolution, with destruction of historical sites, the outlawing of many traditional cultural practices and the displacement and deaths of millions. It was an ugly time and those events had long-reaching effects. And finally, Tiananmen Square, which forced the Chinese to realise that there were going to be limits to the new-found freedoms that had been granted to them.

The main theme of THE PAPER BUTTERFLY is how these events impacted on individuals. The mystery is merely a means to an end. I learned a lot about China, its history and people reading this book. It also serves as a powerful reminder not to judge the people of a country by the actions of its leaders.

May 2008 review originally posted on Murder and Mayhem

 

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