SECOND OPINION: Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Review published on October 19, 2016.

This is the second book in a trilogy and, although it can be read as a stand alone novel, I think that you would get much more from it by reading the prequel, Whispering Shadows. In that novel the reader was introduced to Paul Leibovitz, an American journalist who has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years, and his Chinese girlfriend Christine Wu, who has lived in there since her father died and her family was torn apart during the Cultural Revolution. Paul was living a reclusive existence in an isolated house on an island a short ferry-ride away from Hong Kong. He had moved there following the death of his young son and the breakdown of his marriage some three years earlier. Although very fond of Christine, he was still feeling too bereft to consider contemplate real commitment.

In this story Paul is beginning to come to terms with the death of his son and his relationship with Christine is deepening, although they are still living apart. Then, out of the blue, Christine receives a letter from her brother Da Long, pleading for her help. As she has had no news of him for forty years, and had thought he must be dead, this letter comes as a huge shock. With her horrific memories of events she experienced during her childhood in China, combined with wondering why her brother had not made contact during the intervening years, she is inclined to ignore the request. However, Paul thinks she should go to find out what her brother wants and so, with fear and reluctance on her part, they both make the journey into the heart of China. There they find Da Long, a downcast, prematurely-old man, living in abject poverty in a remote village. His wife, Min Fang is now bed-ridden, having been struck down by a mysterious illness which has left her blind, speechless and incontinent. Da Long has asked for Christine’s help because he recalls that, as a child, she had been determined to become a doctor and he thought that she would be able to discover what was wrong with his wife. Not only is Christine unable to help, because she hadn’t been able to fulfil her childhood dream, she also finds that she is reluctant to engage emotionally with her brother. She remains apparently unmoved by the fact that he is so lovingly caring and attentive to the wife he obviously adores.

However, Paul’s sympathy is aroused and, when Christine returns to Hong Kong, he stays on to try to help. It isn’t long before he discovers that other people in the village have also been affected. All his investigative-journalist instincts kick in, encouraging him to investigate further, and to do all he can to help. His enquiries lead him into the murky worlds of big business and politics but even though he is putting himself, and others, in danger, he continues his quest to uncover the truth.

As in all his books, Jan-Philipp Sendker’s ability to make all his characters credibly three-dimensional is one of the real strengths of his writing. Having retained such strong memories of the main characters from the previous book it was easy to immediately re-engage with them. However, it was equally easy to become deeply engaged with all the new characters in this story. I very quickly felt very involved in their struggles, both in their day to day lives, and in their search for justice within a system where all the odds were stacked against them. The relationship between Da Long and Min Fang was so touching that I was frequently moved to tears – as Da Long observed, when all appeared to be hopeless, “A loving heart never gives up”. I liked the fact that the author found a way of letting his readers into the life of the speechless Min Fang by incorporating short chapters in which she expressed her thoughts and feelings. These added such a rich depth to the developing story.

As in Whispering Shadows there are themes which explore the abuse of power, corporate corruption, the difficulties faced by anyone who attempts to challenge big business or powerful politicians, the disruptions caused by a country facing rapid political and economic changes, comparisons between Eastern and Western attitudes and mores, determinism versus fatalism – I could go on! However, at no point did I ever feel that these explorations became any sort of political rant; the author was skilful at making them part of a tension-filled and very moving story about interesting, often flawed human beings.

He highlights differences between Eastern and Western cultures in ways which are thought-provoking, showing how these differences can often interfere with effective communication. This theme alone would make this an ideal choice for reading groups; it would definitely stimulate some lively discussion!

The author’s writing style is so lyrical and introspective that at times I found myself re-reading certain passages in order to enjoy them anew. His stories are full of empathy, compassion and a deep understanding of relationships; they deserve to be savoured and reflected upon. I am now eagerly anticipating the publication of the final part of this trilogy – it can’t come soon enough for me!

Linda Hepworth 5/5

Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Polygon 978-1-84697-371-0 pbk 2016

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