Sometimes, an author can be a victim of her own success. Having read Pallavi Aiyar’s first book, Smoke and Mirrors, a journalistic look at modern China, I half expected her new novel Chinese Whiskers to be a satire with updated observations. Instead, the so-called fable of modern China is a rather cutesy tale about how two cats foil greedy Chinese hoping to sell tainted pet food for huge profits.
Told through the alternating voices of Tofu and Soy Bean, between meows and scratches, the book comes off as a somewhat elementary primer on China, a sort of Aristocats with Chinese props.
The novella takes us on a fast romp through China’s many ills: the rich-poor gap, migrant workers’ plight, xenophobia, one-child policy. But one problem here is that she’s covered most of these issues extensively in Smoke and Mirrors.
Furthermore, Aiyar devotes half the book to the 2003 outbreak of SARS in discussing media freedom. In a country racing ahead as quickly as China (or India), 2003 has the feel of ancient history.
Aiyar is a perceptive writer who gave us a valuable perspective with her first book. But Chinese Whiskers has the feel of something written rather quickly. That said, it’s a well-paced and heart-warming story about courage, modesty and justice.