After completing my review of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful Underland, I was ready for a thriller. Beijing Payback did not disappoint me.
Author Daniel Nieh is a multi-talented creative person with a gift for writing. As I began reading, I saw the earmarks of a carefully crafted story and a manuscript which had be revised, likely more than once. These are the acts of a serious writer, and I have great respect for Mr. Nieh’s having (I assume) accomplished both. The proof, as is said, is in the pudding: it is a story to be savored. I finished, patted the cover, and pondered my pleasure in reading it.
Writing in the first person ad Nieh does isn’t easy. It can lead to an overuse of the “I” did this or went there, crushing the plot. Mr. Nieh’s story does not suffer this laziness; in fact, he displays considerable ability in constructing differentiated sentences and paragraphs, vividly developing the novel’s various characters and locales, all the while eliciting sensory perceptions to enhance the reader’s enjoyment. First-person also runs the risk of lapsing back in the third, which are caught only through assiduous editing as in Beijing Payback. I don’t believe I saw a single such lapse.
I’ve read and enjoyed quite a bit of fiction by Asian and Asian-American authors. I like getting into the heads and hearts of people from other cultures, for as much as we humans are all alike, so are we different and distinctive from one another. In that disparity lies a great opportunity to step outside our own mental confines and see the world as it looks through the eyes of another. When it comes to portraying Asians, and Chinese in particular, especially in a thriller, it’s all too easy to lapse into stereotypes. But not with Daniel Nieh’s book. He’s a fair-and-square straight shooter about both the fun and foibles of being a Southern Californian college student, as well as the cast of American Chinese (and Taiwanese) characters, even going so far as to reproduce dialogue in Cantonese. Well done, sir.
The story—the plot—is deep, complex, but never confusing and always engaging. You want to know what will happen next, and chapter by chapter you see it unfolding. Nieh doesn’t cheat you out of a satisfying yet not “perfect” ending where everything gets tied up in a neat, comfortable package. And that’s good. There are enough cross-cultural, familial, plausible, human foibles and resonant archetypes to satisfy the most discerning reader of the genre.
Next Saturday in My Brain on Grape-Nuts: Attending a Literary Conference in the Age of COVID-19 and ZOOM.
In two weeks in Saturday Book Review: John Grisham’s latest novel, A Time for Mercy.