Two murders, without a mystery, punctuate this centuries-long story of rare antiques, a great sweep of Chinese history and a conclusion like a piece of seamless jade.
Shen’s debut novel is in two parts: Part 1, in the present day, focuses on Sir John Wu, a titan of commerce and industry who lives in Hong Kong. He and his wife are enjoying a stroll in New York City when Wu sees two huge matching vases in the second-story window of Puccini Antiques. He must have them—in front of his Hong Kong villa, they’ll be the envy of the neighborhood. But to get them, he must deal with Angelo Puccini. Despite Wu’s comically short stature, he’s the epitome of success and power. Puccini, on the other hand, is a giant of a man but a complete, feckless failure in life. In a rage at being rudely treated, Wu smashes several antiques that come to hand; returning the rage, Puccini kills Wu and his wife and stuffs their dismembered bodies into the two large vases, later committing suicide. There are a few awkward spots in this section, particularly with the characterization of Angelo: He’s often portrayed as a comic buffoon, so his murderous rage comes as perhaps too much of a surprise. Nick, a young shop clerk, has many pages devoted to his personal misadventures, but—unlike his fellow clerk, Jim Hawkins, who receives a well-plotted reappearance later in the novel—he disappears from the text. Shen may need to rein in a few of the plot threads, although his storytelling enthusiasm serves him well in Part 2, when the story slips back several centuries to the time when the works of art from the shop, including the two huge vases, were made. The objets d’art travel down through the centuries: For example, the huge vases were made as offerings to a Buddhist temple in the 13th century and were then owned by one illustrious family or another as the families’ fortunes waxed and waned. Finally, the artworks find their way to Marcus Puccini, Angelo’s late father, a true lover of antiquities. Antiques, the narrator eloquently ruminates, are more than well-wrought trinkets: “[I]f you hold an antique object in your hands long enough, you may begin to feel as though you were fumbling with your fingers back through the dark corridors of years.” Families and dynasties emerge and fade away in China’s long, turbulent history, but the objets d’art seem to remember.
A well-written, engaging tale through time.