Inspired by true events in the author's life, this debut novel describes the rape of a young Taiwanese-American woman by a psychologically damaged Irish boy and the traumatic aftereffects of the attack.
Vivian Tan, 29, is a London-based, Harvard-educated filmmaker and TV producer with a deep love of travel. During a nature walk in Belfast, where she is attending a reunion of former Mitchell Scholars, she is accosted by Johnny Sweeney, a 15-year-old Traveller who has attacked "beours" closer to his age without suffering any consequences. For all Johnny's cockiness, Vivian is more shocked than scared when he punches her in the head and begins ripping off her clothes. It isn't until long after the harrowing and increasingly bizarre assault, described with breathtaking urgency, that its emotional fallout catches up to her. Even as his world comes crashing down, Johnny persists in thinking Vivian was fair game. He learned his violent ways from his abusive father, who regularly batters him and whose attacks on Johnny's mother led to the division of the family. Avoiding literary trappings, Li trusts the story to tell itself. Alternating between Vivian's and Johnny's points of view to sometimes mesmerizing effect, she shows off a powerful empathy. The novel is marked by telling details that seem lifted from the activist author's real-life ordeal of 2008: the media's portrayal of Vivian as a "Chinese tourist," the awkward emails Vivian sends people to explain her absence from work, the inadequacy and indifference of social services following her rape. That Li was able to write this novel, as both personal catharsis and public service, speaks volumes about her inner strength.
Li's offbeat crime novel is both a valuable social document and a riveting page-turner.