You know how some books just stick in your head, even if you haven’t read them? The China Coin was one of those for me. I don’t know how old I was, but it was at one of our school’s summer fayres at one of the jumble sales where I first saw it and read the back and considered reading it and then put it down again.
It’s been at the back of my mind basically ever since, so I finally put it on my reading list, where (as I’d kind of suspected) it was unavailable for Kindle, so then it went onto the Christmas list, where my Holmesian family managed to track it down for me <3
The China Coin by Allan Baillie follows Leah, half-Chinese, half-English, living in Australia, on her mother’s wild goose chase into China to solve a family mystery. You’re thrown in at the deep end of a choppy, intimate narration style which slips easily right into Leah’s self-admonishment and cheeky asides as she tries to behave well despite the rocky circumstances of the trip. It’s a young book, younger than young adult, so the language is quite simple but I found it hard to follow sometimes in the way that Leah found what was going on around her hard to follow, a lot of adults talking in her second language about the politics of a foreign country.
The language issues are hinted at but mostly left alone in dialogue, which I’ll forgive because it would have just cluttered up the story with little gain. Leah’s increasing familiarity with the language is shown through the way she thinks of names when people are introduced to her, at first translating them in her head and later thinking “in Chinese” as it were, which was a nice touch.
It’s quite a little book about a lot of things, all of which are so snugly fitted in that it almost seems a shame to pull them out and name them. Leah is forced into acknowledging the Chinese half of her identity, which has never interested her before, unlike her Singapore-born mother, Joan, who feels the pull to her homeland much more keenly. She also comes to reconsider her own relationship with her mother, and their trip is the catalyst to that part of growing up where you realise that your parents have thoughts and feelings and pasts as well, that they were young once, that they were shaped by the things that happened to them as you’re being shaped now. It’s a story about grieving and the different ways in which people do it, and about how wives and mothers as well as sons and daughters cope. It’s about learning there sometimes aren’t Heroes and Villains but people who are both depending on where and when you’re looking.
And it’s a story about Tiananmen Square.
It’s probably the Tiananmen Square part that kept me thinking about it through all those years, because as I recall, it was in the blurb of The China Coin that I first heard the name, and ever after, hearing the name reminds me of the book. From Leonard Cohen’s Democracy to news articles about the increasingly extravagant censorship attempts of the Chinese government every year. Always at the back of my mind.
The China parts of the book, where Leah is looking out and not in, travelling and interacting, are really nicely done. Like I said, it’s a young book, but the simplicity of the language doesn’t dilute the beauty and vividness of the imagery at all. Baillie doesn’t go in for much moralising, focusing on what Leah sees and hears and what she thinks of it all, which strengthens the story. The one place where I felt it was a little heavy-handed was a single sentence at the very end of the book, and even there, to be honest, I think he was right. It’s a really subtle, understated book in a lot of ways. The ending is ambiguous. Characters are forever alive/dead, lost in the fog of not knowing that state repression of any kind fosters, and though the end of the book is the end of the trip, you don’t see Leah and Joan actually leave. They’re frozen in the act of leaving, maybe unable to ever really leave China behind them (for various reasons) after this holiday turned horror, or maybe just to keep the reader there with them, deny the reader the easy way out of getting on a plane and following them back to safe, familiar Australia.
The ending really rams it home that Joan, foreign-born Chinese that she is, really is different despite her frequent protests to the contrary. The Australian embassy comes riding in to save her, whereas Li-Nan, her Chinese-born counterpart and distant cousin, will have no such rescue.
I was immediately interested by the dedication: “I wish to thank the many people in China and Australia who have helped me write and check this book, often at risk to themselves.” As Leah learned, here, the danger is real. And at the back of the book, we’re told Baillie was in China – in Beijing, in fact – in June 1989. You know, just an interesting fact.