The recent history of Hong Kong is scrutinised in this series of interlocking stories, which revolve around an obsessive, analytical investigator. The Borrowed is an ambitious concept: a blend of social history, moral quandaries, political commentary and golden-age style murder-mysteries. Author Chan Ho-Kei has crafted six semi-independent novellas which form a single coherent narrative. Then, just to underline his achievement, they are told in reverse chronological order. Prepare yourself for a life lived backwards…
Each episode highlights a pivotal moment in Hong Kong’s turbulent times in the last half century or so, many of them mirrored by Inspector Kwan’s personal progression through the police force as his seemingly-supernatural powers of deduction are fine-honed to an inescapable edge.
So brace yourself for riots and civil unrest, the transition from British to Chinese rule, the knock-on effect of Tiananmen Square, the confluence of 20th century communism and 21st century capitalism: the uneasy equilibrium which saturates this multi-cultural city. Yet these global events are presented from an entirely authentic, personal perspective. The ripples of geopolitics rebound through chaotic street markets; butterfly wings beat against skyscrapers built of steel dreams.
A word of warning: this is not a thriller. It’s not a page-turner. It’s a detailed examination of crime, corruption, society and individual responsibility. The language is considered and painstakingly constructed. There are many mysteries explored and resolved in the multiple stories, and the author cheerfully exploits the mechanisms of the traditional murder mystery. Every aspect of a crime is explored to the nth degree; the facts are scrutinised from every angle, and you still won’t guess how Kwan comes to his remarkable conclusions.
A veritable deluge of Chinese names and places assaults the reader – you’ll need to pay attention or you’ll miss all the subtle clues, quietly secreted between the lines. The translation into English is agile enough, retaining even the flow of Oriental speech patterns. But each understanding also serves to highlight the cultural divide, even in a place like Hong Kong where Britain and China have co-existed for so long.
If you enjoy world crime in translation then bump this book to the top of your reading list. It’ll reward your attention with insights that demonstrate how political upheaval and disorderly citizens are nothing new; how societal change is always unsettling, and how personal echoes from the past reverberate into actions taken in the present.
An absorbing interlude of cultural exchange; a showcase for a fascinating cast of characters, and some splendid mystery twists.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei is available in hardback, paperback and ebook