China is known by some as the land of tea, that is, the place where tea drinking began. For thousands of years, China had a stranglehold on the tea market that was finally broken by a tricky Scotsman. It is a land with a long history, lots of traditions, and relatively recently an upheaval and establishment of a new government. Lots there to inspire authors.
Donna Carrick, a talented author living in Canada, certainly soaked in a lot of atmosphere from the time she spent in China going through the strenuous adoption process. This came to good use when writing The First Excellence, a story of adventure, mystery, danger, and a close-up look at what life is like in the land of tea. That makes this book an example of what a lot of good authors do: they take a personal experience and use it to spin a tale that becomes a novel that’s hard to put down and, when you have to put it down because you can’t keep your eyes open, you keep thinking about it and wondering what is going to happen next. The voice of having “been there” comes through loud and clear and cannot be faked.
One of the best parts of reading this book was that I hadn’t guessed the ending after reading the first few chapters. (Considering a book I had read not too long ago where I had guessed the ending, this is important.) In fact, there are parts of this novel that read like a chess game, with a trap being set or an opponent being led down a fake path.
The basic plot involves a young woman named Fa-ling, born in China and eventually adopted by a Canadian couple. She travels from Canada back to China with a group of excited parents-to-be as they go to the city of Nanning to finally hold in their arms the babies they have been trying to adopt for quite some time. Interwoven is Fa-ling’s journey into her past, a murder or two, some local police detectives and sinister government officials, and a plot hatched by a woman as the supposed solution to her problem that ends up putting her and others in danger instead.
One of those local detectives is less than hygienic, leading to a comment or two about strong unpleasant odor. Some people think that having a rather malodorous detective as part of the cast of characters is a bit gimmicky. Maybe, but I look at the full context. This is not some divorced, drunken, slovenly Swede as in the Henning Mankell novels. Nor is it a quirky Belgian Detective living in the U.K. Here, Carrick simply uses this aspect of the character to “flesh him out” for us, making him more of a real person while showing us a bit more about the culture in this country so little known in the West even today. “Made in China” is more than just words on the bottom of a teacup or on that bag of tea we just purchased.
Carrick similarly “fleshes out” other characters with little glimpses into their psyches and details sprinkled here and there of their physical and mental make-up. Of course, this includes their hopes, fears, and natural urges, all handled deftly by Carrick. You also get quite a peek at a land that has prized its privacy and security since the days the Great Wall was built to hold back the Monguls.
Don’t miss the quotable gems, like this one:
“There is nothing like the company of youth and the satisfaction of a decision reached to restore one’s natural energy and vigour.”
Steep a pot of tea, sip it softly, and dive into this excellent novel by an accomplished author who, together with her husband Alex, also has time to take care of their children, including her adopted treasure from China.
And may your first excellence be tea, everyone!
Note: The First Excellence recently won the first Indie Book Event Award for Excellence in Fiction ever given out.
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