She meant it partly as a cautionary tale: “Aimee had a really difficult time marketing that book,” she said.
But to me such a statement is often a selling point, and so I bought Flash House (used, I’ll admit—but in hardcover!) and I just finished reading it an hour ago. Genre-related schizophrenia or not, the entire thing is a page-turner. I read it at breakfast instead of Elle, and if you know anything about the OCD intensity of my morning routine, you know this is a big deal.
The character-driven-drama part of the book involves Kamla, a half Kashmiri, half Chinese child prostitute living in Dehli in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Early on, she tells us (and I like that Liu chooses a non-American narrator), she singles out Joanna Shaw, an American reporter’s wife who runs a halfway house for brothel refugees, as the woman who may save her from a life of poverty and abuse.
And she almost does—but although Joanna takes Kamla in, schools her and even adopts her, Kamla’s girlish heroine-worship gives way to a deep skepticism that is one part molestation survivor (would you trust anyone if you’d been raped by a police officer?) and one part true. Joanna is well meaning and not as naïve as most of her contemporary ex-pat ladies who lunch, but she’s still far from fully understanding how difficult it is to truly escape the streets.
The political-thriller component revolves around Joanna’s husband Aidan who goes missing while on assignment in Kashmir. Joanna goes looking for him—with Kamla, her son and Aidan’s Australian war buddy Lawrence in tow—in the mountains near the Chinese-Indian border just as China is beginning to fall to Mao’s Communists. Rumors abound. For the next few years, Joanna is left to wonder whether Aidan left her or was taken from her, and who’s side he’s on.
Flash House is a deeply ambivalent book, and that is what unites quiet, calculating Kamla with the spy games storyline. The book is wary of the idea of rescue, whether the hope comes from a mother, a lover or a political party. It’s a warning Americans should probably heed—we’re fond of trying to save people, and we tend to mess things up much worse than Joanna does.
At the risk of going against New Criticism (if I’m correctly remembering what New Criticism is), I’ll say that Flash House is more intricate in plot and expansive in subject matter than most books by women. I was glad Liu took the project on, and I frequently found myself stepping back and gaping at the amount of research she must have done, though I felt the level of craft wasn’t quite up to that of Richard Powers, who writes similarly dense and intense books.I’ll also say that there is a resonant femaleness to the story, a literal unwillingness to sacrifice character to plot, as Joanna tries to comprehend how her husband can abandon his wife and son for a cause, whatever that cause may be (even as she virtually abandons her children for the cause of her husband). Ultimately Liu suggests that men and women aren’t so different in their desire to rescue and be rescued. They just go about it differently.