Ellie McEnroe is not the kind of heroine you expect to find in Beijing. The former National Guard medic – still smarting from her time serving in Iraq – is smart, tough, and more than a little lost. She has a busted leg and a sassy, sardonic tongue. She spends her time popping the painkiller Percocet, eating spicy peanuts and drinking beer. She is, it has to be said, hard not to like.
Ellie is the creation of American author Lisa Brackmann who first introduced her to readers in her zany, furiously fast-paced debut thriller Rock Paper Tiger (2010). In that novel Ellie ends up wanted by both Chinese and American authorities after a chance encounter with a suspected Uighur terrorist.
Brackmann, a former Hollywood executive, hit upon the idea of setting a suspense novel in China after she became bored of only reading about ‘foot binding and tragedy’. Instead she wanted to create a book that showed the country in all its glorious absurdity. The punchy and flawed outsider Ellie is the character who binds her novels together – yet she seems to create as many problems as she resolves. ‘I don’t like superhero characters who can solve the world’s problems with their bare hands and a pocket knife,’ Brackmann observes.
The 27-year-old Ellie is anything but. In Hour of the Rat, Brackmann’s new novel, Ellie is still hurting from a broken heart following the breakup of her marriage. Her mad evangelical Christian mother has come to live with her in Beijing. Her one time hook up, the acclaimed artist Lao Zhang, has fled following trouble with authorities. Oh, and the man supposed to be keeping an eye on her for China’s FBI, the DSD, has a crush on her. (And, as it turns out, is into tantric sex. In a big way.)
Into this mix comes a call from ‘Dog’, her former lover, who, like Ellie, was blown up in Iraq. Dog wants
her to investigate the disappearance of his brother Jason, an eco-warrior hiding from the American government in rural China. Ellie finds herself on a wild goose chase around the country – and soon discovers that the food corporations that Jason is trying to expose are hot on her heels.
China may seem like a strange topic for a Californian native who spent 15 years working at a major motion picture studio. But Brackmann’s affair with the country began in 1979 when she first visited, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. ‘I was 20 years old, I was kinda blonde,’ recalls the author, now 54. ‘We went right after they opened it up to foreigners at a time when seeing somebody who looked like me, it was kind of like seeing a Martian. In Inner Mongolia a guy did such a double take he fell off his bike.’
Today, Brackmann travels to China regularly (‘you know how fast Beijing changes – you skip a year and you miss something’) and takes Mandarin lessons on Skype. Her books are largely a portrait of a new kind of booze-and-sex lovin’ expat who finds themselves f**ked up and off track in China; the kind that is running away from problems at home. ‘The people that I know tend to be extremely smart, fluent in Mandarin, do interesting work,’ says Brackmann. She pauses and adds with a laugh: ‘Then there’re the sketchy people.’
The sketchy people (and there are a lot of them) are woven into a larger story that touches on some big issues; the screwed-up mass-produced food industry, for one. Ellie’s observations, relayed through the first person, are droll but never glib. No one is spared in Rock Paper Tiger, from the ‘Prada babe’ art dealer to the Beijing train station, which is ‘big and brown and flanked at intervals by towers topped with pagoda roofs – another attempt to put Chinese lipstick on an architectural pig.’ (The Beijing West station is ‘the same thing but on steroids and gray... like some kind of Stalinist wet dream’).
The United States also gets a beating. When we first meet Ellie she has flashbacks to Abu Ghraib-style prisoner abuse, in which she is implicated with her ex-husband. But Brackmann is more concerned with painting nuanced pictures than in pointing fingers. ‘I was interested in this idea of a young woman who joins the National Guard because she wants to get health insurance and doesn’t expect she is going to end up in a war zone,’ says Brackmann. The book was inspired in part by Lynndie England, the soldier from a trailer park who was convicted, alongside ten others, of the Abu Ghraib torture in 2005.
Evangelical Christianity also features through Ellie’s mother, a single parent who somehow always ends up with a jerk boyfriend. She also sends her daughter (who lost faith in Jesus in Iraq) emails that preach Christian parables; they are sourced from real mass emails sent out to Brackmann’s own (non-religious) family. But, again, judgement is withheld. ‘Her mum is a figure of fun in a way but I don’t want her to be totally laughable and totally ridiculous,’ says Brackmann. Ellie’s mother may be faintly misguided, and a little pushy, but she has a large heart.
In Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat Brackmann has taken on weighty subjects with a light touch: Iraq, Xinjiang, fervent religiosity, torture and eco-terrorism, to name a few. So what’s next? ‘I really want to get into the whole art thing [in China]; the rich, horrible, privileged class,’ says with relish. ‘Lifestyles of the rich and disgusting!’ No doubt Ellie will have a lot to say about that, too.
Hour of the Rat
is available from amazon.cn, priced 143.90RMB.