Rock Paper Tiger
by Lisa Brackmann
Review by Mel Jacob
Soho Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781569476406
Date: 01 June 2010 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Typical of Soho offerings with an exotic setting and gritty look at Chinese life, Lisa Brackmann's debut novel Rock Paper Tiger follows Iraq veteran Ellie Cooper as she seeks oblivion in Beijing. Her search is disrupted when she visits her artist friend and sometime lover Lao Zhang and meets a timid Uighur hiding from the authorities. When Ellie accompanies Lao Zhang to an art center, the Warehouse, for a gathering she meets purported art dealer Lucy Wu a friend of Zhang's. Later, he warns Ellie not to go home that night. She spends the rest of the novel looking for him and evading various spooks, goons, and government agents also interested in Zhang.
The novel alternates between Ellie's search and her life before Trey takes her to Beijing. During her service as a medic in Iraq, she met and fell in love with Trey Cooper, an Army intelligence officer. That relationship led to involvement with prisoners and being asked to treat some tortured prisoners. At first, Ellie doesn't realize what is happening.
After her leg is badly injured and she is shipped back to the States, Trey visits her in the hospital and asks her to marry him. She agrees, but the marriage has problems. Ellie finds resuming a normal life difficult and Trey is away for long stretches with the Army. When he leaves the Army and takes a job with a private contractor, he is assigned to Beijing and Ellie accompanies him.
In Beijing, she finds Trey making love to a Chinese woman and moves out. Disillusioned, she struggles with the continued pain from her injury and Trey's betrayal. Zhang befriends her and she sinks into the under-life among the artists of Beijing.
After Zhang disappears, several government contractors trail Ellie and ask about Zhang and the Uighur. Ellie claims no knowledge of either. Zhang had been active in a computer game, The Sword of Ill Repute, and, gradually, Ellie is drawn into it in her search for Zhang. She meets members of the "Great Community" and is sent on a wide-ranging journey looking for Zhang.
The search moves along at a rapid pace as Ellie follows the confusing clues from the game. She stumbles on help in unexpected places that sometimes might cause the reader to wonder about her luck. Despite questions by various authorities, she manages to elude much violence until near the end. Too, while China has many western tourist and businessmen, fewer make it to the countryside. It seems strange that Ellie manages even there.
Publisher's Weekly gave this debut novel a starred review and those at Amazon are glowing. Personally, I found the main character annoying. She spends most her time drunk or in a drug fog. The "f" word appears frequently along with other gutter language. She doesn't care who she sleeps with. Yes, she had a rough time in Iraq, suffered a serious injury, and her husband betrayed her. Guilt over her small part in prisoner torture pushes her away from people. If she blew the whistle, she put her husband and others in jeopardy, but then her injuries gave her further reason to say nothing. Older readers may grow impatient, while younger ones will sympathize with Ellie.
The author plans another as yet unnamed novel set in Puerto Vallarta.