The Message by Mai Jia (tr. by Olivia Milburn) #BookReview #BlogTour

China, 1941.

It is the height of the Second World War, and Japan rules over China. In the famously beautiful city of Hangzhou, a puppet government propped up by the Japanese is waging an underground war against the Communist resistance.

Late one night, under cover of darkness, three men and two women are escorted to an isolated mansion on the shores of West Lake. All five are intelligence officers, employed as codebreakers by the regime. But the secret police are certain that one of them is a communist spy. None of them are leaving until the traitor is unmasked.

It should be a straightforward case of sifting truth from lies. But as each codebreaker spins a story that proves their innocence, events are framed and re-framed, and what really happened is called into question again and again.

Part historical spy thriller, part playful meta-fiction, The Message is a masterclass in storytelling from a Chinese literary sensation.

It's such a pleasure to be hosting the blog tour for The Message by Mai Jia today. Many thanks to Martina from Head of Zeus for inviting me and for sending me a digital copy of the novel.

The Second Sino-Japanese War isn't a conflict I am familiar with and although Japan's involvement in World War II is well known to westerners, their invasion of China resulting in them forming a puppet government there isn't as widely written about here. Therefore, it was absolutely fascinating to read a novel written by a Chinese author about this dangerous, uncertain time in his country's history.
The first part of the book features the main narrative and is based on a true story about a small group of cryptographers who are brought together, ostensibly to decipher a secret message. However, when they easily crack the simple code, they realise the sinister truth is that actually they are all suspected of potentially being a Communist agent in surprise. With Communists and Nationalists separately resisting the puppet government, the interception of a telegram giving details of a special envoy, known as K on their way to meet leaders of the resistance movement would obviously have been handled with urgency and great secrecy. Therefore, when a second message is discovered in the possession of a Communist agent, warning the insurgents that the envoy has been spotted and to call off the Gathering of Heroes, it can only mean a spy is in their midst. The four cryptographers are told they have four days to either confess or make a denunciation but if the identity of this 'Ghost' isn't known after this period, they will each suffer whatever consequences are laid out in yet another encrypted message.
The four - two men and two women - each respond differently to the threat as they begin to either prove they can't be Ghost or to point the finger of suspicion at one of the fellow accused codebreakers. The intriguing narrative reveals the various ways in which the authorities plotted to try to trick the truth out of the them and although it's clear that at first they rather enjoy the challenge of the puzzle and relish trying to work out which one is Ghost, there is always an underlying sense of tension. This was a brutal and violent regime who would stop at nothing to ensure that their self-styled Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere wasn't threatened by either Communists or Nationalists. There are moments of shocking brutality here and a chilling reminder of the lengths people were prepared to go to protect or further their beliefs; there can be no doubting that a deadly game is being played out within the grounds of a former gangster's mansion.
The plot-driven narrative means that it isn't possible to really get to know any of the four codebreakers well and it's never obvious which of them are telling the truth and who may be concealing their true identities. Although the crime they have been accused of has occurred previously, this is essentially a locked room mystery, with no hope of escape unless the truth is revealed in the time period allowed. It took me a little while to adjust to a different style of writing but once I had each character clear in my head and understood what their roles were, I found this first part of the novel to be an engrossing read.
As a history buff, however, I think I enjoyed the latter part of the book even more; after the intrigue of the story comes a detailed and invaluable section in which the author writes a personal account of his experiences writing the book, including his meetings with some of the key players. It's not something I can discuss here in any great detail without giving anything away but Mai Jia's descriptive, almost conversational writing style is compelling and ensures there are plenty of surprises and revelations. It eventually becomes evident that trying to gain a clear, unambiguous view of what really happened is impossible given that those involved had roles which required secrecy and deception. The author's voice and opinions are distinctly expressed thanks to the excellent translation by Olivia Milburn. The Message is unlike any thriller I have ever read before, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Message is published in the UK by Head of Zeus and can be purchased from the following, Hive, Amazon, Waterstones, Kobo but please try to order through one of our wonderful independent bookstores if possible.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Mai Jia's first novel in English, Decoded, was published by Penguin Classics in 2002, and has been translated into over twenty languages. His novels have sold over 10 million copies and Mai Jia has won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, the highest literary honour in China. The Message was first published in 2007 and has sold over a million copies in China. Mai Jia was born in 1964 and spent many years in the Chinese intelligence services.