By: Ian Hamilton
House of Anansi Press, February 2011, 412 pp, Paperback $19.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Ian Hamilton’s debut novel, like so many first novels, reflects much of the author. Hamilton has had an interesting working life as a journalist, diplomat, senior member of the federal government, and businessperson. He has been a writer for many years with his work being featured in several newspapers and magazines in North America. Without question, his writing style is derived from these years of experience. His style is minimalist but not simplistic. While it is somewhat evocative, Hamilton allows the reader to complete a portion of the picture that he creates with his words. Ultimately, The Water Rat of Wanchai is not designed to become a fixture in the canon of Canadian literature. What Hamilton has created is an entertaining book that should keep most readers interested in both the plot and the fate of his intriguing protagonist Ava Lee.
Ava is a Chinese-Canadian ‘accountant’ working for her ‘Uncle.’ Based in Hong Kong, Ava’s Uncle and his team are often hired to recover funds that have been stolen in international business rings. While not physically imposing, Ava has a keen intelligence, extremely well-developed resourcefulness, and some advance martial arts skills that she seems to need on occasion. Hamilton also emphasizes throughout the book that Ava is a lesbian, although this her sexuality is not explored to any degree in the debut noble. Hopefully this will be something broached in the follow-up novel of this new series as it is something not treated intelligently in many instances in this genre – crime fiction.
The novel’s plot is not complicated, but it is somewhat complex as Ava travels from Toronto to Asia and finally back to Guyana and the British Virgin Islands in attempting to complete her mission. Her task in the novel is to recover $5 million that has gone missing in a series of cooked shrimp deals. Ava encounters a series of characters that spend much of their time in the grey areas of the globalized economy. One of Ava’s main gifts is the ability to gather information quickly and then act nearly immediately on what she has found. While Lee comes into contact with some intimidating characters throughout the novel, it is not until she reaches Guyana and meets Captain Robbins that she has a true nemesis. Robbins essentially controls everything of consequence related to Ava’s mission in Guyana, from the police to the active criminal element. Hamilton’s chapters are brisk and the pacing of the writing matches the action of the novel. It is not a continually frenzied pace as Ava does need to gather her information, wits, and check in with Uncle on a somewhat regular schedule throughout the book. It is at these times that Hamilton displays thoughtfulness in the treatment of character, setting and the main narrative.
In this excerpt, Ava has just spoken with Uncle and she is readying to leave for Guyana from Trinidad in the morning:
She turned off the television and crawled into bed, her mind randomly fliting ahead to Guyana. She had no idea what to expect when she got there, in terms of either the country or Seto. She knew well enough from trips to hinterlands in India, China, and the Philippines that her life’s usual amenities might be in short supply, but it would be another thing entirely to experience deprivation of clean water and food she could actually identify. Guyana, from what she’d read, certainly held that potential. She could only hope she was wrong.
Then there was Seto. All he was right now was a passport picture, a fragment of a voice, and an address in a neighbourhood she didn’t know in a city and country in which she had no connections. She could land tomorrow and find him gone. Maybe Antonelli had figured that keeping $2.5 million was worth a little – no, a lot of – humiliation. Or maybe when she got there she wouldn’t be able to find a way to get to Seto. But when has that ever happened? she thought. Not often. Actually, never.
There was always a way; it just depended on what level of risk was warranted by the money at the other end. The risk and the reward weren’t always in balance, and Ava liked to think she was pragmatic enough to recognize when that was the case and to make the appropriate decision. Five million dollars, though…her commission share of $750,00 was an awful lot of money, an awful lot of reward.
The best part of Hamilton’s book is that most readers will find Ava Lee an attractive character; worthy of a degree of empathy and concern. I found it easy to cheer for her and hope that she was able to complete her challenging task. I also commend Hamilton for creating her as a lesbian. In mainstream crime and mystery fiction, I do not believe you find this often enough – characters outside the heteronormative mainstream. It should allow for Hamilton to explore this side of her identity in the forthcoming books in this new series. Hamilton also creates secondary characters with care. While unsavoury, they are not solely defined by greed and evil. Marking them with some humanity allows the reader to engage with the book in a way that is not always possible in this genre. Additionally, Hamilton must be a food lover and his travels have allowed him to have the characters explore a number of great dishes in several of the novel’s scenes; adding nuance to his story.
With all of this being said, the book does suffer from some significant weaknesses. I think the book is hamstrung by the fact that an obviously wealthy forensics accountant is chasing after millions of dollars for rich international capitalists. A large part of me kept wishing that Ava could put her considerable skills to better use than a straightforward pursuit that will ring hollow for many readers. In the current global economic malaise that shows no sign of abating and affects millions of working class people, many may feel that Hamilton should have addressed different themes and concerns in his work. Additionally, there is redundancy after the first chapters in describing Lee’s upscale designer clothes and much of her routine in her travels. Much of this debut novel is about branding – both in terms of the character and this new series – and at times this seems awkward and heavy handed.
Despite some troubling drawbacks, I did enjoy large parts of Hamilton’s novel. The writing is clean and readers will find a lot of intrigue as they follow Ava around the globe. I am certain that Ava Lee will draw readers to the second book in the series that will be published in July of this year. We will hope for more from Hamilton and Ava in future books in the series. Ava with a heightened social conscience would be welcomed.
*An advance copy of The Water Rat of Wanchai was sent to me to read and review by House of Anansi Press. It was not purchased.