Looking for the next office romance to sweep you off your feet? This book’s not that. But if scandal, smear campaigns, gossip, love affairs, cheating and lies are what you need, look no further than The Gap Year, the fifth novel from the historical and detective fiction writer, Lee Po-Ching. And, boy, does this story have them in the bucketloads.
Intrigue is the name of the game here, and this is where Lee excels. The question is: is Alan, the novel’s young lawyer protagonist, his pawn, or are we? From an impromptu proposal seeing the girlfriend off at the airport to the return of an ex asking for Alan to be her divorce lawyer; from the killer legs of an old schoolmate he can’t keep his eyes off to the unexplained insertions of conversations with an unknown woman, the reader is kept guessing right to the very end: will Alan keep his promises and the marriage go ahead, will Alan’s character arc lead to redemption, is fate just not that kind, or is Alan really just a scumbag after all? The answer might not surprise you, but the big reveal will.
You see, not everything’s as it seems – Alan tells us as much with his frequent references to Murphy’s Law. But Lee refuses to give too much away too soon and brilliantly leaves it up to the reader to find out on their own where they’ve been duped. This is the love story that tugs at the heartstrings for all the wrong reasons, and it hurts so good. It is also the detective story where nothing is too convenient – no tying up all the loose threads into a neat bow for the reader, happy ending or not, just more and more unspooling.
So what this depiction of a white-collar world does very well is capture the messiness of modern life. Especially of a life spent, as so many are, trying to climb the greased rungs of a professional ladder. Law, acquisitions and mergers – these are high pressure circles to operate in. There are expectations to be met, quotas to be filled, contracts signed, and so much opportunity for things to go awry: rumors about illegal materials in a client’s products, a senior colleague stepping in to take some of the load off Alan on his first lead case, the appearance of his ex’s soon-to-be-divorced husband as his professional counterpart – these are only some of the challenges that threaten to jeopardize Alan’s progress in the world of work, and also to rock his cool, unbothered exterior.
This is not to say that Alan doesn’t have his fair share of more ruffled moments, only it is hard to know whether in them he is wrestling with long suppressed feelings of being unworthy and unloved (see: absentee father and repeated failure to pass the National Judicial Exam) or simply worried that his conniving ways might finally get found out. Deciding which it is, is made all the more difficult by the welcome fact that Alan isn’t the only repeating car crash of a person in this brisk, riveting read of a novel. He’s just the one our lens is turned on. In Trick Mirror-esque fashion, The Gap Year shows how any of us can easily fall foul of the incentives that modern life thrusts upon us, and also how hard it can be to see ourselves clearly in our current, capitalist culture. Here are where comparisons to Netflix’s Love & Anarchy and BBC/HBO’s Industry also come into play. A cast of characters with no real idea where they are going or how to get here, making decisions left and right and center, seemingly with little concern for where they will end up. But how much of that is just the reality of life at times?
It is tempting here to suggest similarities with Unsworth’s Animals too, especially in the books’ clear reminder that the life pillars of Relationships, Work, and Fun are precariously balanced, but the book only spills into Animals-level chaotic during the fumbled “kidnapping” which Alan orchestrates, with the help of the kid’s grandmother, to reunite a child with his dad when the boy starts to miss him. Surprisingly, this leads to one of only several more tender moments in the book that it feels safe to trust, so much of them elsewhere being built on omitted truths, outright lies and ulterior motives.
With a well-written and believable first-person voice and an endlessly engaging narrative, this book, for a time the best-selling work of “detective” fiction on Readmoo (the biggest ebook platform in Taiwan), sits right on the cusp of upmarket commercial and literary fiction. It has mass appeal thanks to the universal (morbid) curiosity for drama so many readers and consumers now share, and its TV rights are, it feels, as good as a sure thing – a twist as juicy and excruciating as this one practically demands to be played out onscreen.