BookBrowse Reviews Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Whispering Shadows

by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker X
Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2015, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2016, 352 pages

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East meets West in this mystery set in Hong Kong, where characters haunted by their baggage must work together to solve a mystery.

Netting an impressive average rating of 4.4, Whispering Shadows drew our readers in with an exotic setting, complex characters and a multi-faceted story that ties it all together.

A story with many layers
Whispering Shadows is a novel of modern China: the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and its continued effects on those who survived its cruelty; an investigation into the disappearance of an American businessman involved in a joint venture with a Chinese partner; a love story, and the long, emotional recovery of a father who has lost his young son to leukemia (Vivian H).

China as central character
While I have traveled to China, this book gave me a glimpse into the dark side of the country that you only get a glimpse of in movies (John W). The Hong Kong, Lamma Island, Shenzhen settings were so exotic that it was a delight to read and learn about them (Viqui G). The author's background as a reporter in China serves him well in conveying a sense of authenticity in describing various aspects of life in Hong Kong and the mainland. For instance, the extensive corruption that permeates present-day Chinese society is a key aspect of the story. Just as important, the reader learns about some of the horrific aspects of the earlier era through the anguished interior thoughts of a certain key Chinese character, a detective (Thomas F).

The mystery aspect of the story didn't work for some
The weakness of the novel is the plot, its lack of believability and its predictability. Well before the conclusion the reader has some idea where the story is going which detracts from the suspense (Robert S). The interiority of perspective, varying among the key characters, enables the author to explore the problem of trust in these circumstances as well as the moral dilemmas some characters confront. In these ways, the author strives for literary quality as he embeds its story of crime and detection in the context of contemporary Chinese social and psychological characteristics. However, this fusion of literary and thriller elements is not entirely successful. There is little suspense or mystery in the plot. Some of the situations and especially the conversations feel contrived and lacking in credibility (Thomas F).

For most, the mystery was almost beside the point and the novel emerged a winner
Whispering Shadows is much more than a murder mystery as Sendker deftly explores with tenderness and compassion the deepening friendships between painfully wounded people who, despite their flaws and vulnerabilities, risk building a trust that transcends cultural lines and personal struggles with their own past demons. (Linda N) Whispering Shadows is an unusual book. As a murder mystery the novel is wanting, telegraphing as it does the direction of the story. This would be a fatal flaw in most books of this genre. But in this book it is not. The story is so well structured, the characters are so deep and the descriptions are so vibrant that Whispering Shadows succeeds as quality literary fiction (Robert S). Sendker's understanding of the modern Chinese dilemma—a complex ambivalence about capitalism—is both effective and important, for it haunts the central discourse of the novel. Indeed, it is Sendker's appreciation for his characters' memories of China's Cultural Revolution, in Deng Xiaoping's "enterprise zone" and throughout China, that creates the real tension in the novel. In many ways, the actual mystery is secondary; the absorbing questions are more novelistic and focus on the emotional development of several key characters. Thus the novel is really about emerging: the tortuous development of modern China and the equally painful movement away from absorbing loss (Diane P).

This review was originally published in April 2015, and has been updated for the February 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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