How lucky for me when an author I like, Betsy Tobin, has a new book out that I like, Crimson China, and that book has a gorgeous cover. It's a trifecta! Publishers do love a cover that shows a woman from behind or the side so you cannot see her face.
Crimson China starts out at the deep end of the drama pool. A woman, drunk, sets out to drown herself but ends up saving the life of a young man instead. The man is Wen, an illegal Chinese immigrant. He was almost drowned while working as a cockle-picker in Morecambe Bay, England. (Cockles are small saltwater clams.) The tide came in too quickly and he got trapped. Angie, Wen's savior, takes him home and tries to nurse him back to health but it isn't long before their relationship changes from platonic to passionate. They are two unhappy, damaged people can they heal each other? Angie aborted her suicide to help Wen but is she replacing her alcoholism with another addiction? Wen's grief and shame at surviving when so many others were drowned, his fear of the law and the gang that smuggled him into England all shadow his recovery.
When Wen is assumed to be one of the missing dead from the disaster his sister Lili decides to come to England to lay his ghost to rest. They have each already used up one life in China. They were brought up by step parents after being found alive in the earthquake rubble that killed their parents. Lili doesn't know what debts Wen incurred to get to England or how ruthless the gangland collectors will be if they find he's alive.
Tobin used a real life tragedy as the starting point for this novel, the Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster. Cockles are harvested by raking through the sand at low tide. In 2004, twenty-three illegal Chinese laborers were drowned when they were cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. At the subsequent trial one man, a Chinese gang-master, was convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter for callous behavior motivated by money.
The coupling of Wen's story of survival, grief, life as an illegal alien and Angie's alcoholism could have been turned by Tobin into movie of the week melodrama but instead the author has written this gratifying novel with restraint and sensitivity. She alternates the point of view in Crimson China but always brings us back to the largely invisible world that both Wen and Angie inhabit. It's a world made up of desperate circumstances and isolation. Despite one or two awkward plotting problems, Crimson China is an involving and well written novel.
I do have a little bit of bad news. Crimson China is not out in the U.S. yet. I haven't found a release date. Tobin has had two other novels published here: Bone House and Ice Land (enjoyed them both very much), so here's hoping...
P.S. While reading Crimson China I was reminded of another excellent novel about the contemporary immigrant experience in England, The Road Home by Rose Tremain. That is a remarkably good book but hells bells look at that awful cover on the paperback on the left. The hardcover jacket is excellent. They should have stuck with that.