One of the reasons I’ve always been a reader is that I’ve always been interested in how people other than myself live, and books are the most convenient way to learn that. But it’s not just the people, it’s the culture, and in addition to being a crackerjack romance, Kathleen Brady’s The Language of Light gives some excellent insights into both.
Lu McLean leaves her native Los Angeles to study Mandarin Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute, her eye on a United Nations translating job. That, however, is before she runs into Ming Cao Wei, a Chinese teacher at the institute. As Lu has just left a ten year relationship, she has absolutely no intention of becoming involved with anyone, including Ming–which is, of course, exactly what happens. But Ming is bound by custom, tradition, and family. She can’t leave, and due to the increasingly iffy political scene, Lu can’t stay. But neither can she bear to part with Ming.
Brady does an admirable job of portraying the culturally stifling attitude and making sure her readers understand the regimentation of a process-oriented life where tickets and permissions are required for the most innocuous of pastimes and to even be seen in the presence of anti-authoritarian activities is cause for being detained by the police. Brady suffuses this love story with a dark overlay of fear and dread for what might happen if someone finds out.
Missteps are bound to occur in an atmosphere this charged with danger, and Lu often finds herself stepping over lines she’s not even aware exist. Ming, for her part, also finds coping with Lu’s American “full speed ahead” attitude difficult and also makes mistakes. This friction provides a terrific element of combustibility in their relationship and adds to the tension already inherent in the situation. Their time together is both precious and prickly, an interesting combination that makes their scenes pop.
The oasis here is Lu’s Australian co-worker, Elizabeth, who provides some counterpoint to Ming. She and Lu have some very important scenes together that provide relief not only from the cultural situation but from Lu’s at times perilous relationship with Ming. We breathe easier when Elizabeth is in the picture, but she’s by no means a minor character. She’s as fully integrated into the plot as Lu and Ming.
The Language of Light is a solid, enjoyable romance that doubles as an excellent portrait of the repressive and sometimes oppressive Chinese culture in the 1980s. Its characters are rich and well-drawn. Luckily (as you’ll see in the back of the book), the story continues in the forthcoming Light Is To Darkness.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler