I’m not a mystery/crime thriller kind of reader. I’m more drawn to literary and experimental novels. But Eric Qiao’s debut The Only Girl in China is definitely changing my TBR pile. It’s a fast-paced, succinct suspense that sucked me in from page one. I found myself eager at the end of each chapter to discover more and more, even when it spells out terror for the main characters.
We follow Chinese adoptee Ed Li in rural China, on the search for his missing sister. He plans to teach at a village with no electricity or running water, and on this journey, he meets his fellow American female colleague, Lorie. However, things aren’t going to his liking.
At the first chance he gets, he decides to leave town. But just before he could depart, a local girl is murdered and he becomes the number one suspect. So with the help of Lorie, he begins his quest to clear his name, uncovering a web of deceit in the village that’s on the verge of becoming a lucrative jade mine. The deeper he digs, the more horrors he unearths. I could not look away at all.
The dialogue is snappy and the descriptions are succinct while painting a full, hard-edged picture. I was so relieved to see that the female characters were well-rounded and not stock damsels in distress. What I especially loved about The Only Girl in China is how much I learned about the lifestyle of living in an impoverished village in China:
“In the car, passing the countryside, passing random stone houses here and there, with old newspapers covering the windows, with inhabitants drinking water out of brick wells, recycling shit as fertilizer as means of sanitation, and I think, this is China, the nation with the fastest growing GDP. Their government is pouring millions in the military, billions into a space program; they’re reaching for the moon, forty years behind good ol’ USA, while people starve, while justice is ignored. Back home, some folks say China is an economic powerhouse, the future of our beloved world. Others say it’s still a Third world toilet. The former must be high on crack. The latter I want to ask them, where’s the damn toilet? Let me know when you find one.”
That showcase of wit, great research, range, and striking details imbue every single chapter of this novel. This is an extremely strong debut. A book that had me so engrossed that I read 160 pages in a single, captivated night, ignoring my aching arm and closing eyes. It even elicited a large gasp out of me and I never get that audible when I read. And more so, I actually teared up due to its sad beauty, one reaction I never expected.
Qiao’s book is quite the ride and full of shocks. Sometimes, it was hard to stomach due to how raw and visceral it can get. But I wanted to know so badly if the protagonists were going to be okay and if they ever solve their case. I was deeply invested in the characters and this story and was sad to see the novel end. A part of me hopes there will be more adventures for Ed Li that I can one day read. He was a fun, astute guy to journey with and I enjoyed learning about the world through his eyes.
Eric Qiao has delivered a promising debut in The Only Girl in China. He shows a masterful usage of words, pace, and characterization. It was great to witness the growth of the protagonists and how deep the darkness goes. Qiao made me a believer in thrillers and I can’t wait to read his next work. In fact, he recently released his follow-up thriller Shanghai Bandit, which centers around bank teller/Vietnam veteran major Chin and his perfect heist. I could only imagine what Qiao will deliver on all his expert fronts and cannot wait to read it when I get the chance.
Interested in reading The Only Girl in China?
Order the book at Bol.com.