The opening chapter resembles the start of a movie: the corpse of a pretty young girl lies in a peach orchard; whiteness, blood stains, blossom and the naked body create a strange beauty, accompanied by a growing sense of dread. With crisp and flowing imagistic writing, Chen Xue’s new crime fiction sets the scene for a serial murder investigation that spans many years. This becomes the core of a story that revolves around several key figures involved in this first murder, approached at the level of human nature, paying equal attention to the protagonists’ emotional lives and the narrative of events, each character experiencing a hard growing dogged by their own particular demons to become closed and lonely adults. Years pass, then fate brings these people back to where it all began to look for clarity about the cruel and poignant truth behind that bloody murder and in a search for a way out in their own lives.
Of the threesome of friends back then, Ting Hsiao-Chuan, Sung Tung-Nien, and Chou Chia-Chun, one has died in the flower of her youth, leaving behind her first love who blames himself overmuch, and a best friend who is now universally known as “the murderer’s daughter”. Fourteen years have sped by, but nothing is over just because the case was so hastily closed. Sung Tung-Nien has chosen the life of a policeman, a zombie-like existence revolving entirely around his work. Chou Chia-Chun has undergone a total transformation to become industry-leading crime feature writer Li Hai-Yen, forever seeking answers in the tragedies of others, answers about tragedy, about grief and about survival.
The Line Between Good and Evil
A detective novel such as this, proceeding from an exploration of human nature, is bound to challenge its readers’ moral compasses. Right and wrong, good and evil, light and shade, life and death, beauty and ugliness, love and hate; everything exists as oppositions, but in Don’t Die Again, everyone involved has their own way of thinking and has been living in a gray zone of ambiguity for a long time; only by escaping the fetters of conventional views will they be able to dig down to the truth about their real feelings.
In the case of Li Hai-Yen and her desire for clarity on all the unanswered questions in her life, for example her father and his supposed suicide out of guilt for his crimes, she finds the most practical approach to be voluntarily coming into contact with criminals and seeking to understand them, attempting to see the way the world works from their point of view. For Sung Tung-Nien, no amount of solving cases can work away the clot still lodged in his heart; nowhere can he find a path to his own redemption, and he is utterly consumed by a sense of powerlessness in the face of death. Also, one of the things “emotional realist” writing seeks to achieve, beyond just telling us who the murderer was, is an exploration of the motive for the crime and the presentation of a more complete truth. The choice is to explore causes and influences at the psychological level and to shine a light into the shadow cast by social and environmental factors.
By and large, tragedy occurs not due to any single cause but as the result of a whole chain of misfortunes. Each person is always the protagonist of their own story in what actually happens, and each has their own version of the truth and their own way of responding to the world. By showing us the roads each of her core characters have come down, Chen Xue presents a thorough and well-ordered account of how the process of growing up and the environment that takes place in shape the particular qualities of a person’s character.
In this book, Chen Xue once again explores the major theme of traumatic memory through the medium of genre fiction. Sung Tung-Nien and Li Hai-Yen have both suffered profoundly because of the darkness in their childhoods and the murder, the effects revealing themselves in various aspects of their characters such as their silence and closed-off natures. They struggle on alone, doing all they can to forget, but are constantly being pulled back into the past, their lives in a stagnant state that began when they were sixteen, flipping back and forth between repression and avoidance. However, with some good fortune, the workings of love and fate mean they are no longer compelled to suffer the pain of making a fresh start all alone. Li Hai-Yen cracks the icy seal that has kept Sung Tung-Nien’s heart frozen for so long, and Sung in his turn proves time and again through his actions that he is eager and determined to make a go of building a life together. It is a healing moment during which they can genuinely appreciate the truth of the maxim that “no man is an island”.
Love Is Always Mightier Than Hate
The meaning of this crime fiction’s title, Don’t Die Again, is made manifest in the way that love remains the only answer even where, during the course of these serial murders, terrible crimes have been committed and indelible marks left on the soul. Which is why, even after a separation that has lasted many years, Li Yen-Hai and Sun Tung-Nien each still plays the part of only possible savior for the other; never, from their childhood years onward, have they known the security of being loved and cared for, always driven and controlled by their emotional wishful thinking, yet how many times does it turn out to be the case that true love is not about what you do, but what you don’t do?
In the gap between getting and not getting, we catch a glimpse of love’s power to destroy and simultaneous power to make good, the complexity that has been a theme Chen Xue repeatedly explores in her fiction. Li Hai-Yen comes to sense that love and suffering are also like this, amorphous and impervious to clear understanding. Sometimes when two people are on a journey together and have already been through so much, they will not fear for the future even if it promises only more hard trials and long nights. If all before has only been a world of darkness, then when a beam shines to cut through the night, be it never so weak or fleeting, then the light can defeat the dark and the travelers win through to a new life, testimony to the beauty and meaningfulness of sorrow.