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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

French Concession

Xiao Bai

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase French Concession

Title: French Concession
Author: Xiao Bai
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 351 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: French Concession - US
French Concession - UK
French Concession - Canada
French Concession - India
Intrigo a Shanghai - Italia
  • Chinese title: 租界
  • Translated by Chenxin Jiang

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Our Assessment:

C : both story and presentation too convoluted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 4/5/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) hot mess of murky political intrigue, steamy couplings, foreign profiteering, and often-naive Communist fervor. Itís hard to keep the players and their shifting allegiances straight (.....) By the time surprising plot fireworks finally begin to explode, the average reader will probably have long since conceded defeat." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       French Concession is set almost entirely in 1931 Shanghai -- 'year 20 of the republic' as each chapter-heading reminds -- when there was still a large foreign (and largely self-governing) presence in the region (notably the 'French Concession' of the title), while Japan was seen as a growing threat and making its presence felt. Meanwhile, Communist forces and terror groups were also trying to undermine the government.
       French Concession begins with a brazen assassination, notable because the group behind it had not only carefully: "planned the assassination but also intended to shape its media coverage". The victim is Ts'ao Chen-wu -- whose wife, Leng Hsiao-man is, in fact, a member of the revolutionary cell that sets up the kill; she would have liked to take care of it herself, but they decide on a more media-effective public attack. She, however, disappears from the scene, which eventually attracts the attention of the authorities -- as well as on-site photographer Hsueh Wei-Shih.
       Hsueh is having an affair with a White Russian arms dealer, Therese Irxmayer, also known as Lady Holly, but he eventually also gets involved with Leng. He becomes a "self-taught private detective" and finds himself very much in the thick of various dangerous things; not only does he get involved with both women, he comes to work more or less undercover for the police and also tries to infiltrate the terrorist group. Soon he finds his:

life had turned into a terrifying game of mahjong, and he had no idea when he had been dealt this hand or how he had been duped into staking everything he had on it.
       In a Postscript the author explains that this story is based on actual events and archival material -- and describes the files he consulted, noting their unlikely (but also limited) survival, as for example in some cases:
The pages had been turned inside out and glued together with inferior glue. They came unstuck with time, allowing me to pry apart the pages in accordance with the Archives' strict reading rules
       Unfortunately, most of French Concession reads very much as he describes the convoluted state of the limited archival material -- a mess. Xiao doesn't help matters much by failing to focus on any one character (or even having the characters be readily identifiable: not only do many have multiple names, many often are -- or pretend to be -- someone they are not) -- and by having the characters tell false versions of events and plans to each other. Rarely does any character tell another what is really going to happen -- or explain what has happened, or describe relationships, truthfully. As even Hsueh admits as he's spinning out one set of 'facts' to convince someone:
     This is ridiculous. This story is full of holes. Boy, am I an idiot.
       Yet even in recognizing his idiocy, he continues down the same path, spinning fake stories left and right -- and not to any particularly good end, at least as far as the reader can tell.
       This is the kind of novel that spills out events in rapid succession and reassures -- as yet another character does --:
There's no time to explain. You'll understand soon enough.
       Understand ? Yes, there's a plan they're working towards -- but neither the explanations nor the payoff are impressive enough to excuse the circuitous path Xiao leads his readers on in getting there. What good ideas there are -- the plan to record one of the events on film, for example -- are lost in all the clutter. The events that happen along the way aren't negligible either -- there's a lot of killing and arresting and kidnapping and hiding going on -- but far too much of this blurs, given the many and different (and often duplicitous) characters.
       Matters are also not helped by Xiao's color-commentary: some close-ups of the individuals are reasonably well-done and revealing but readers are treated -- among many other things -- to far too many sex-scenes which offer what were presumably meant to be vivid details but are more or less nonsensical, such as:
She tore his clothes off and started playing with his dick until it sprang up like a punching bag assailed by blows.
       Some of the descriptions of the interesting time, place, and political conditions are quite good, but too much is lost in this jumbled jungle of events and characters Xiao has thrown together. There's a smattering of good ideas throughout (a nice touch: the tabloid called the Arsène Lupin), but also far too much distraction and tangential padding. Without an adequate pay-off, there's just too little here -- a dripping mess.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 August 2015

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French Concession: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Xiao Bai (小白) was born in 1968.

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