The Wounded Muse is an exciting yet grounded thriller set in Beijing during the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. It’s a wonderful setting in time and place; here was the People’s Republic of China getting ready to celebrate its arrival on the world stage as a great power. Beijing was being readied to showcase a new prosperous and “open” China, but such perfection sometimes requires a heavy hand. The pre-games development juggernaut could not be slowed down for nuisances like the rights of residents and workers. Those were trifling matters nobody would bother about, as long as journalists were kept away from reporting on them. Into this minefield comes Chinese documentary-maker Qiang, chronicling the destruction of old neighborhoods. His friend Jake, an American financial journalist, also thinks it a pity to see the old streets disappear and the residents moved to the city outskirts, and the novel opens with the two friends filming in a demolition site.
From the opening pages there’s an excellent feeling of realism, a level of telling detail that makes it obvious that author Robert F. Delaney knows what he is writing about. Like Jake he is a American journalist with years of China experience, in particular of covering economic news from the northern capital. Delaney moved to China in 1992 and experienced the country’s modernization first hand. (He still writes about China for various prestigious publications, but now splits his time between New York City and Toronto.)
An example of the loving detail is this passage describing a neighbourhood of narrow streets lined with low-rise housing blocks:
Their overall uniformity is broken up by ground-level tuck shops selling beer, snacks and packets of shampoo hanging down like streamers. These shops stay open late, but not so much for the revenue. There’s less business to be had since more supermarkets are opening throughout the city. These shops are Beijing’s public sphere. The owners sit on small stools with their friends, discussing whatever they’ve most recently learned about the world,…. With no illusions about their own government or anyone else’s, they speak with authority, spitting truth like bullets between drags on their cigarettes as they rock back and forth on their stools, relaxed, legs crossed, and not caring who might disagree. Their loud banter, punctuated with the occasional hocking up of mucous, is the life blood of a city whose main features are either unremarkably drab and utilitarian or grand and imposing.
Even more explosive than stories of forced relocations and house demolitions, are revelations Qiang gets on film regarding the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Soon after recording this evidence, Qiang disappears. His sister, his former partner, and Jake take up the fight to have the authorities free him.
A parallel sub-plot, which will later become intertwined with the mission to free Qiang, involves a troubled romance between two homosexual Chinese men: Dawei, a destitute kitchenhand whose dreams of the Hong Kong movie industry have taken him only as far as a restaurant in Macau, and Zhihong, a civil servant. Their first encounter sees Dawei helping Zhihong, a customer at his restaurant who has drunk too much, back to his hotel. They pause along an embankment and chat, Dawei finding a sympathetic listener who understands his daydreams of movie magic. There’s a touching passage where their mental connection takes on physical expression:
Zhihong is quiet. He reaches out slowly and puts his hand on Dawei’s shoulder. “You’re not stupid. I wanted to be in movies too. I thought I’d make a good director, but now I’m just a bureaucrat taking orders.”
Dawei leans more heavily on the railing because Zhihong’s soft grip incapacitates him. No one has touched him since his schoolmates in Yongfu would huddle, arms across shoulders, for warmth or when sharing a secret, or just because that’s what school kids do. Zhihong’s touch is different. It liquefies Dawei’s every muscle and sinew, so that the only thing holding him up is the railing. Dawei closes his eyes to immerse himself in the vibration that’s taken over. He sees rich colours – midnight blues, blood maroons and forest greens – undulating in velvety textures. And underneath this wash of physical sensations and visions, he feels reassurance. Fearing any move he makes will interrupt this energy, Dawei resists the urge to look at Zhihong. A look might clarify what’s happening between them, and that’s a risk he doesn’t want to take. Eye contact might pull them into unfamiliar territory that can’t be navigated. So he remains silent, trapped in ecstatic torture, and looks over the inlet.
Later, a chance encounter between Dawei and Jake in Beijing will have far-reaching, perhaps fatal, consequences.
Although falling into the gay fiction category – of the main characters, only Qiang’s sister is straight – sex takes a back seat to the thriller aspect. The one partial exception is a series of casual sexual episodes involving Jake, careless self-indulgences which he might well pay for, and risks showing that he still has a lot of growing up to do.
There is no main bad guy in the story, one of many good authorial choices made. The police and intelligence agents remain faceless, parts of a large shadowy, omnipresent state machine.
The Wounded Muse is an excellent read, an intelligent thriller with heart, and it feels much shorter than its 334 pages. It’s well written, cleverly plotted, and believable in its characters, events, and setting.