Crimson China by Betsy Tobin

Crimson China is primarily the story of Wen and Angie.  Wen is an illegal immigrant who is in debt to the Snakehead gang and as such must spend the next three years paying off these debts.  The start of the book is based upon a real life tragedy that occured during 2004 when 21 cockle pickers were drowned at Morecambe Bay.  Betsy Tobin has created an imaginary outcome for one of the survivors of that tragedy.

I thought this book was very easy to read.  It captured my imagination immediately.  It helps you to see the lives of these invisible people, the barriers and exploitation they face and the sense of displacement they feel.

Angie and Wen’s lives collide when Angie, during her own suicide attempt, actually becomes Wen’s saviour.  From there Angie becomes responsible for Wen providing him with a haven and in doing so unwittingly gives herself a new found purpose.  Running alongside this story is the story of Lily, Wen’s twin sister, who has come to London to uncover Wen’s trail and try to lay to rest his spirit.

What I liked about the book – I thought the beginning started really well and was a real page turner.  I liked the parallel stories with Wen and Angie in Morecambe and Lily in London.  I liked the way that it shows both Wen and Lily trying to come to terms with living their own separate lives and also the way in which people help each other and in doing so give themselves a reason for carrying on.  Angie saved Wen but he then begins to change her life – she is no longer as desperately lonely.  Meanwhile in London Lily is finding her own niche.   She has found a place to live and is helping Adrian – a widower, who she meets while teaching his adopted daughter May to speak Chinese.  Really, at the start, all of them were lonely, living, but only barely.

I enjoyed reading this story – although I don’t think it reached it’s full potential.  I wanted to know more about people’s motivations and background.  For example, I didn’t really feel that I knew Angie.  Why was she so angry all the time – I know we uncover a little of her background but not really enough to understand why she felt desperate enough to try and end her life.  Similarly with Wen – he puts himself into massive debt with a ruthless gang in order to become an illegal immigrant and live a desperate and hard life.  I don’t know why though?  The book does touch upon the background of some of the other immigrants who are working to send money home or trying to pay for their children’s education, etc, but Wen doesn’t have that in common with them (in fact he actually makes up a story himself so he clearly feels the strangeness of his own situation when compared to the other people he has been thrown together with).  I just don’t get a real sense of why he turned his life upside down.  Also, I would have enjoyed knowing a little bit more of Wen’s life in China with his sister Lily – perhaps he felt trapped by their unusual closeness??

I also thought that the Snakehead gang didn’t really come across as menacing as they should have??  And, even though the story skips between different locations I don’t think there was a real sense of feeling for either place. I don’t think you would be able to get a particular feel for either London or Morecambe.

However, in spite of the above I do think this is a very readable book, I liked the way it’s written and found it intriguing.

I would recommend this book as I thought it was an original and interesting concept.

Rating B


Crimson China

Crimson China


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