Monday, July 30, 2012

Review of Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis (Sort of Books, 2008)

Wei Wei, the daughter of a high ranking Chinese police officer, has travelled to Britain to take a degree course at Leeds University.  Bored with her studies and wanting something more glamorous and exciting she’s hooked up with Black Fort, the leader of a local criminal gang. Ding Ming arrives in Britain (the so-called 'Gold Mountain') with his young wife, Little Ye, in a container after a long and arduous journey across Asia and Europe courtesy of the Snakeheads.  For the privilege they now owe them several years service working hard labour for minimal wage.  They’re met by Black Fort and his British colluder, Fat Kevin, and are immediately separated.  When Inspector Jian receives a distressed call from his daughter and no answer to his subsequent calls he boards a plane for Britain.  He can speak no English, his money does not seem to purchase very much, and he has lost the authority he wields in China.  A fish out of water, he blunders his way along, co-opting Chinese people to help translate.  He is soon on Wei Wei’s and Black Fort’s trail, kidnapping the naive peasant Ding Ming, who has a smattering of pigeon-English, along the way.  All Ding Ming wants is to keep his new masters happy and to be reunited his wife.  But Jian has other ideas setting them on a collision course with the ruthless criminal gang.

The premise for Bad Traffic is a good one: both privileged and peasant Chinese struggling to find their place in a new country with limited English and understanding of the culture.  It enables Lewis to both explore the differing Chinese experiences of Britain and to give an impression of Britain through the eyes of others, and to also give some insight into modern China.  It’s an opportunity he doesn’t waste, providing an engaging and unsettling tale of the illegal immigrant experience and the gang’s who run the trafficking routes.  To do so, Lewis regularly switches the perspective of the narrative between the principle characters, all of whom are well portrayed.  His prose is all show and no tell, driven along by dialogue and action, with the story told through a series of short, punchy chapters.  The plot is generally well constructed, but sometimes strays a little too close to farce and plot devices designed to keep the caper nature of the story moving along.  They work to alleviate what is essentially a dark tale, but also nibble away at the credibility of some elements of the tale.  Nevertheless this is a well written, unsettling and entertaining read that manages to find a fresh angle on the contemporary British crime novel.


1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - This does sound like a solid and dark story of the human smuggling trade as well as what it's like to try to make a life in a completely different environment. Thanks for your review.