Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Chinese Proverb by Tina Clough

Publish Date
Friday, 5 May 2017, 11:39PM
By Stephanie Jones

The claustrophobic air of a locked-room mystery pervades the opening sequence of Tina Clough’s third novel, The Chinese Proverb, as a 38-year-old man coaxes a much younger woman out of unconsciousness in a remote Northland cabin. Hunter Grant, a New Zealand Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is out in bushland when his dog detects in the undergrowth what Hunter clocks as the body of a boy. But he’s mistaken; looking closer, this is a living being; and closer still, an emaciated female, with an ankle that has borne a shackle so long the flesh is badly scarred.

She gives her name as Slave, saying her mother, who disappeared from the property where the pair were held captive, called her Dao, though her legal name is Susan Johnson. Dao recalls isolation and abuse at the hands of a man she calls Master, real name Bramville. Men in boats visited periodically, the one in charge wearing a Darth Vader mask, and she endured ghastly abuse. Dao was trapped by bonds, aggressive dogs and a fear of water, but is a literate auto-didact; Hunter can gauge her age as about 20 from what she recounts from newspapers she found on the property, and she has gleaned university-level mathematical knowledge from a cache of textbooks.

One question dominates the nascent storyline. Dao is terrified that her former captor will track her down: she knows things. Why doesn’t Hunter immediately call police and social services? Put bluntly, his expertise is in the kind of specialist security services that involve high-value targets and unbribable mercenary soldiers, and the upshot is that meekly calling 111 would be way below his pay grade.

Or, as Hunter explains to an old Army colleague, Charlie, and his lawyer sister Willow, both of whom he enjoins in tracking down Bramville: “I want him first and then the law can have him. Just being sent to prison is too good for him.” Charlie takes him on a helicopter drive-by of the offending property, and furnishes him with a Glock straight outta Chekhov: Clough devotes considerable word count to a high-tech gun safe and its contents. Amateurs they are not, and the unfailing competence of Hunter and his crew threatens to starve the narrative of suspense. Can there be a villain cunning enough to even momentarily misdirect Dao’s avengers?

The title refers to the Chinese belief that if you save someone’s life, you’re responsible for them, and Hunter isn’t given much of a choice. Dao is dependent on him and cannot rest unless he’s in sight, so they take to sleeping in the same bed. The boundaries between the pair are alarmingly feeble, and Clough has Hunter pondering the re-emergent womanhood of his recuperating charge, whom he nicknames “warrior girl”.

I have never wanted less to see a platonic bond take an amorous new direction, and fortunately the imminent threat of execution concentrates the mind (and lowers the libido). The climax delivers on the promise of its lead-in, though there’s deflation in a denouement that simply revisits the preceding events.

The Chinese Proverb boasts a solid plot and represents a step forward from Clough’s 2015 sophomore novel, the similarly cat-and-mouse-themed Running Towards Danger, though the author remains too partial to tired metaphors. Nonetheless, it’s decent escapist crime fiction, and Hunter Grant – not to mention his mate Charlie, who would shove you out of her chopper if you called her a Girl Friday – is a good person to have in your corner.

To get in the draw to win one of five copies of The Chinese Proverb by Tina Clough click here.


Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.

As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.

Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.

Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.


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