The narrative thread of the book is conventional: a young but wayward translator, Iona, makes her way through letters exchanged between two Chinese lovers who are apart for reasons unknown. Iona – and the reader – have to make sense of their story, for the letters are undated and the facts of their lives are vague. The jigsaw slowly locks in to place and the final picture presents both tragedy and redemption. The excitement of rebellion, the finding of identity both personally and collectively are set against the horrors of Maoist China.
Although Iona herself is less believable, the characterisation is strong and the ultimate message of the story – political commitment at odds with the personal life – is persuasively made. The tale is beautifully told, and because of the pathos of the love story and the realism of the context, it resonates long in the mind. An historically informative but totally engaging read.