Crimson China, Hardback Book
4.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


On a freezing night in February, a woman wades into the waters of Morecambe Bay in a drunken bid to commit suicide.

Braced for death, she finds herself instead saving a man's life - a young Chinese cockle picker, one of the only survivors of a tragic mass drowning.


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In the early morning hours of 5 February 2004, 23 illegal Chinese immigrant cockle pickers died in Morecombe Bay along the northwestern coastline of England forming the shoreline of the counties of Lancashire and Cumbria, a few miles south of the Lake District.The cockle pickers drowned in the freezing waters after being cut off by the tides. Their death, and how they came to be working their, including their illegal entry into the United Kingdom made the international headlines. Twenty-one bodies were retrieved, the remaining two believed to have perished like the others. In the summer of 2013 a skull of one of these was recovered.Betsy Tobin (1961) is an American author who has lived in the UK since 1989. In 2007 she started working on the novel Crimson China which contains a fictionalization of the drama in Morecombe Bay.The novel focuses on the story of the three main Chinese characters, Wen, Lili and Jin. Wen and Lili are orphans following the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976. They grew up together. Jin is a young Chinese woman who lives independently in London. For many Chinese new arrivals, she is the first contact, offering shelter and guidance to finding jobs. The triangle relationship between these characters is gradually revealed, and forms the basis of the novel.Wen is an illegal immigrant who paid a large amount of money to Chinese criminal organization to take him to the UK. This sum must be paid off through illegal labour. Having worked at several jobs, Wen becomes a cockle picker. On the night in February, when his comrades die off Morecombe Bay, he is rescued by a local English woman. This woman, named Angie, is a depressive alcoholic who had wanted to drown herself. Instead she saves Wen's life. She takes him into her house. In the relation that develops between them it seems Wen takes more care of Angie, as he cooks for her every night and takes care of her garden. Wen obviously has green fingers.Lili travels from China to the UK believing Wen to have died. She tries to trace his life in London. Jin helps her find a job, but it gradually becomes clear that Jin cannot be trusted. What is it that Jin conceals? The friction over trust creates a tug-and-pull in their relationship, of which Lili cannot free herself completely. The dependence and danger that comes with it is cleverly woven into the structure of the plot.Crimson China has an ingenious plot, laid out in alternating chapters, as the story-lines of Wen and Lili converge, the chapters about Wen starting from February 2004, and the chapters about Lili from September 2004, to the final chapters in November 2004.Besides Lili's search for Wen, Wen is sought for by the Chinese crooks whom he owes his "immigration fee". This dimension of the story adds to the tension, especially Wen's capture and the final resolution to the story. These two search elements, all the while dodging the police, the fragile balance between dependence and danger, and the difficulties of making a living and finding happiness living in a foreign country, make Crimson China an enticing read, a page turner which is difficult to put down.Betsy Tobin has written a very convincing novel. Having worked in China for a while, she gets all the subtle intricacies of Chinese culture, relationships and the use of Chinese language right, without over-doing it. The novel Crimson China is a true link between China and England, and a valuable interpretation and record of the life of Chinese immigrants in the UK. The Crimson China of the title is a wonderful find, showing the skill of the author in crafting the novel.Crimson China is one of the few books that really kept the curious about how the plot would unfold, and I read it with excitement. Both the plot and the characters have many dimensions, making the development of the story seemingly effortless. Besides, the story suggests a number of side plots and motives, such as loss and redemption, trust and betrayal, etc. The writing is beautiful, so the reader can experience some of Wen's friendship picking apples in an orchard, or Lili's (and Wen's) loneliness on the middle of the bridge spanning the Thames. Another interesting motive, mirrored throughout the story is that of orphans, and what it means to be Chinese (or any nationality) far from home.Betsy Tobin is the author of three other novels. Crimson China was featured and read on BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime.

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