Not for the first time Julian marvelled at the crassness of the British Army. This had been a remarkable story of ingenuity, not to mention valour, by an enlisted man under combat conditions, and Thomas, in his self-righteousness, appeared unaware of how he himself, for his petty reasons, had sabotaged a potentially brilliant intelligence coup. They might as well be back in the Great War, thought Julian ruefully: lions were being led by donkeys.
The last gift from a friend, and I was back in China, being dragged through the twentieth century as Williams crafts an epic thriller which is crushed by the turbulence of the country it takes place in.
Kicking off with the introduction of Harry Airton, and his early friendship with Chen Tao which is brutally ended by the Japanese invasion, I thought the tension between the two young boys was quickly introduced, created a sense of foreboding in the prologue of what was to come.
Fast forward and Harry is back as a spy in Mao’s China, his handler Julian manoeuvring him to be picked up by the Chinese and turned. As the Chinese carefully plan a honey trap, the young Ziwei is introduced as the bait due to an old family connection with Harry. Williams bowls along at an amazing pace, but never dropping the detail, The Dragons Tail is a tight taut thriller, as the characters seem to be on top, before everything flips over at the end of part one (which in my opinion could have been a book in it’s own right) and you are left wondering where it is going to go.
It is part two that is the main course, Ziwei emerges as the books main character, the first part merely building up to the full horror of the Cultural Revolution, as she is sent off to a labour camp for failing to do her patriotic duty. It is this part that I found myself most engrossed in. Having read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans I wasn’t as shocked as I think I would have been, however it is no less powerful for being fiction, it was just as incomprehensible to me reading of the atrocities meted out on the Chinese people by their own leaders as part of a narrative story as it was reading about them in a biography.
I remember feeling that there was no coming back from the characters as Mao finally exits and Ziwei discovers secrets from her mother, and I was deliberating the end I wanted, and whether I really wanted it, the characters deserved a happy ending, but I couldn’t decide whether it would ultimately detract from what was an epic and emotional story. I think Williams balanced it just right in the end, tying up loose ends without dropping into sentimentality, showing sometimes even if you try, you may not always be able to reach over a gulf of time and experience.
At the end I discovered that this was the third of a trilogy, and that the second book was about Ziwei’s mother, so I expect at some point I’ll be back in Williams’s China once again.
For by now the fruit not only represented Mao. The mangoes had become an extension of Mao himself. They were Mao and were treated with the same veneration. Everybody had heard stories of foolish people who had spoken about them derogatorily. In the summer heat mangoes, even cased in was, rot and, not long into their tour, the treasures had obviously shrivelled. Woe betide any innocent who commented on the fact.