Monday, October 05, 2015

Eclipses, exiled librarians and other things to love about 'Jade Dragon Mountain'

I never win drawings, but years ago I won a drawing where I got to nervously accompany the great Salman Rushdie on a short plane ride from Laramie to Denver alongside two fellow University of Wyoming writing students – each of them far more devoted Rushdie fans and just better-read people than me. Before the tiny plane touched down at DIA (and all out of our awkward and obviously over-prepared questions for the novelist), we asked him for autographs. I remember grabbing the one book of Rushdie’s that I’d read and owned – The Satanic Verses – and feeling rather sheepish as the other students on the flight handed him multiple volumes to sign. Then one of them said with a deep, earnest seriousness, “Midnight’s Children restored my faith in literature,” and I knew I was not worthy of this delightful and nerve-wracking trip.

That is all totally beside the point except that the statement comes to mind tonight as I think about the novel I just finished. I can’t say it exactly “restored my faith in literature,” because I’ve never lost that faith. But it did remind me of what real and robust storytelling can be and do in a world where it seems we lazily apply that term (storytelling) to everything under the sun.

The book, Jade Dragon Mountain, is a debut historical mystery by Elsa Hart, and the tale woven across its 300-some pages is alluring and rich like the cover. Exiled librarian Li Du, who is traveling in a western corner of China in the early 18th century, finds himself in the role of detective after crossing paths with a kind and curious Jesuit astronomer discovered dead just days before the arrival of the emperor. As a long-anticipated festival looms, all in honor of a solar eclipse widely considered the work of the emperor himself, time is of the essence. Somewhat reluctantly, Li Du suspends his solo travels to investigate the killing, an inconvenient development in the eyes of the ambitious local magistrate.

I am no mystery aficionado (though I want to read more of them after this!), but I loved this book. Somehow it manages a quick pace and plot alongside sentence-level delights of language. In addition, Hart’s understanding of the history and geography comes across with confidence and care, leaving me with a welcome glimpse of people and places about which I have known so very little.

There are compelling stories within the story, too. Thanks to the presence of the character Hamza, a travelling storyteller who befriends Li Du, the book introduces us to not only the city of Dayan (now Lijiang, where Hart drafted the novel) but to other faraway locales through Hamza's dramatic storytelling. Seamlessly told, the yarns tie nicely into the action of the overarching story, while also hinting that there are many more stories to come from this talented author.

And then of course there are the characters, who for all their no-doubt-carefully-planned-out usefulness to a satisfying story full of twists and surprises, are rendered with delightful relatability and depth.

Lastly, I loved the descriptions of tea, broth, wine and all sorts of tantalizing earthly goodness in this book. Two Sundays ago, I could not have been more happy than I was that afternoon, curled up on the couch with tea, cat, Jade Dragon Mountain and an impending eclipse of our own.

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