When we reviewed the international bestseller, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Phillipp Sendker three years ago, I wrote that rarely had a novel touched me the way that one did and that’s still true. What’s also true is that now, having read Jan-Phillipp’s new novel, Whispering Shadows, I can say with no hesitation that he’s one of the most gifted storytellers out there. Whispering Shadows is a quite different novel from The Art of Hearing Heartbeats yet it also has the same depth of emotion and the same multi-layered feel to it. Whispering Shadows can be read on the surface as a cross-cultural crime thriller yet it also contains profound statements about relationships, life, and death. It’s Book #1 in a new trilogy, which pleases me no end. Don’t miss out on this one!
Paul Leibowitz moved to Hong Kong from the U.S. over 30 years ago and can’t really imagine living anywhere else. He made a good life for himself there, was highly successful in business, met and married a woman he loved, and became the proud father of a son. Life was good until the unthinkable happened.
When Paul’s son, Justin, became ill, Paul’s world began to fall apart. Having to watch his son suffer with acute myeloid leukemia and being unable to do anything to heal him tore Paul apart. He also didn’t understand his wife, Meredith’s, reaction as she pulled farther away from their dying son instead of being there for him. When Paul’s son died, his marriage died as well.
“Would they have consulted a doctor sooner if they had not been able to lay the blame for the pains on ballet? If he had been a boy bursting with good health, a boy whose every prolonged spell of fatigue or weight loss would have immediately seemed strange? Should they have taken his complaints more seriously? Had they been inattentive or careless? It would have made no difference, ultimately. The oncologists took every opportunity to emphasize this.”
The pain was overwhelming and Paul went into deep mourning. He quit his business, knowing he had enough money to survive on, moved from Hong Kong to the small village of Tai Peng on the island of Lamma, where he and Justin had loved to go, and there he shut himself off from the world. He feels that he needs to grieve in solitude for his shattered life in hopes of making some kind of peace out of the devastation.
“Life goes on, Paul.
Meredith’s harsh voice. Over and over again…
Life goes on.
He hated those words. They embodied the unspeakable injustice and the utterly appalling, monstrous banality of death. Everything in Paul strained against it.”
“He wanted to do everything he could to prevent the clamor of the world from covering up his memories. They were all he had left of his son. He had to hold onto them until the end of his life; they were not just immeasurably precious to him, but also extremely fragile…Forgetting would be betrayal.”
How long should grief last? His friends think his has gone on much too long but they seem helpless to pry him back into the world. He has found a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle that suits him in his cottage by the sea. He can talk to his son without anyone thinking he’s crazy. He doesn’t feel any need to get back into the hustle and bustle of city life, despite his friends’ well-meaning interventions. He does go into Hong Kong on occasion and knows at some point he may leave his island home’s sanctuary but he just isn’t ready.
On the third anniversary of Justin’s death, Paul makes his annual pilgrimage up the Peak on Hong Kong island. While sitting in a café at the top, he finds himself talking to a fellow American, a Midwesterner named Elizabeth Owen, who seems very upset. He learns she and her husband are in Hong Kong because their son seems to have gone missing while working for the family business in nearby Shenzhen. Since Paul is American and seems to know how to navigate Hong Kong, and she has no clue how to get anything done there, she implores him to help them figure out what to do.
“’Mr. Leibovitz,’ Elizabeth Owen said in a quiet voice. ‘We’d like to ask you to help us.’ Paul could see that she was making an effort not to lose her composure. She swallowed a few times and her eyes filled with tears.
‘How can I help you?’
‘We…we’re looking for our son. He’s disappeared.’
Paul felt the blood drain away from his face and he felt dizzy for a moment.
‘Your son?’ he heard himself say.
‘Michael. Michael Owen,’ she said in a way that implied that he must know him…
‘He had a business lunch with our business partner, Mr. Tang, Victor Tang. But he never turned up to that appointment…We talked to the Hong Kong police this morning, but they weren’t very helpful. You’re the only Western person I know in this city and you said you’ve lived here a long time, so I thought…’ She did not finish her sentence.
Paul nodded mutely…
‘I’m afraid. I’m so afraid. Can you understand that?’ she whispered, and started crying.”
Despite his initial reluctance to get drawn back into the outside world, Paul agrees. How could he turn her down when her pain at the potential loss of her son is so obvious and familiar to him? And that simple act of kindness not only draws Paul inexorably back into the outside world but into the complex underpinnings of mainland China’s ventures into the highflying world of international ventures. Paul contacts his good friend, Detective Zhang in Shenzhen about Elizabeth’s son. And that’s when things begin to get extremely unsettling. Her son was working, like so many others, on projects that outsourced elements of their lucrative family business to China.
Within a couple of days, her son is found dead and that’s when things get really complicated. Paul and Zhang soon find themselves in imminent danger as they try to unravel the mystery of what really happened vs. the “party line” being given out about this death. They are determined to get to the truth no matter the consequences but those consequences could be dire for all of them since powerful forces in Shenzhen are determined to protect at any cost the new wealth flowing into the area with Western businesses.
Even the zen-like Zhang has dark secrets from his past in the Cultural Revolution that he’s worked hard to protect but can’t forget. What is he willing to sacrifice to help his friend Paul even if it means losing face to do it? How far is Paul willing to go to help strangers from a country he left behind long ago?
All of the characters in this novel are deeply developed, giving us glimpses farther down into the layers beneath the surface as the story progresses. Paul is a man in immense pain who believes his cherished memories of his beloved son will fade away if he doesn’t hold them close and shut away the world, as if by not having to make room for new memories he won’t have to get rid of the old ones. Life has other plans for him though. Paul also has a developing love interest in Whispering Shadows, a patient and wonderful woman named Christine who sticks with him even though he makes it quite difficult at times. Like many people in China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, Zhang has ghosts who haunt him – much as Paul’s son’s ghost haunts him.
I am once again astounded by the brilliance of Jan-Phillipp Sendker’s writing. I thought I was a fan before but after reading Whispering Shadows, I’m a huge fan. I’m very excited that this is Book #1 of a new trilogy because that means I get to anticipate what will happen in my new friend Paul’s life in Book #2. Yes, at least some of these characters will likely feel to you like old friends. I’d love to have Paul, Christine, Zhang, and his patient wife, over for dinner – what a fun evening that would be! In case you haven’t guessed already, I wholeheartedly recommend Whispering Shadows!
Can’t wait to read it?
Whispering Shadows was published on April 14, 2015, so it’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
I’d love to get your comments on Whispering Shadows, Jan-Phillipp Sendker or his other work, and/or this review.
Click here to read our review of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.
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