Reviewed by Alyson Baker
Army veteran Hunter Grant thought he had left war behind in Afghanistan – a conflict that left him with physical and psychological scars. But finding an unconscious girl in the Northland bush and gradually untangling her story involves him in a war of a different kind in his own country.
Hunter sets out to find and punish the man Dao calls Master, but he soon discovers there is more to this than enslavement. Before long he himself is being hunted by the boss of a drug empire whose sole objective is to kill Dao – she knows too much.
Protecting Dao and waging war while trying to keep the police from stifling his enterprise takes all Hunter’s ingenuity and determination and exposes him to deadly jeopardy. He enlists his old army buddy Charlie and her helicopter to help him, but things become complicated when Dao disappears.
Once I had grasped that THE CHINESE PROVERB is a simple piece of storytelling I started to really enjoy it. Hunter Grant has nightmares from his time serving in Afghanistan; he lives a semi-solitary life organising security for anyone who can afford it “from dictators to drug cartel bosses”. He has a supportive family, two sisters living close by his Auckland home and his parents further away. He hangs out with his dog Scruff, retreats to his cabin out of Auckland whenever he can, and occasionally sleeps with a woman with whom he has nothing in common.
But his numbing life is jolted into focus one day when he is walking near his cabin and Scruff finds what Hunter fears is the dead body of a young boy. But the body is alive, and not a boy: Dao is a young woman of indeterminate age who has been enslaved since she was a child. The combination of Dao’s childlike naivete, fierce intelligence and hard-earned survival skills hits Hunter where he lives, and she in turn becomes slavishly attached to her saviour.
THE CHINESE PROVERB is the story of Hunter, with the help of his mates, making sure Dao’s tormentors get their comeuppance. There is no mystery to solve, no surprises in terms of who are goodies and who are baddies, no angsting over the fact that Dao is being pursued by the sorts of people Hunter employs to provide security for his clients – mercenaries who “will do anything if you pay them enough”. The goodies are interesting: Hunter’s sisters, the lawyer Willow and the student Plum; his old army buddy Charlie, solid as and whose loves are her partner Kristen and her Eurocopter Squirrel AS350; and even the cops are caring, understanding and good sorts.
As for the baddies, they are really bad and we don’t get to find out anything about them apart from their badness. I was expecting twists for a while – someone to be not who we think they are – but nope they are exactly what we read. The energy of the story comes solely from the ongoing threats to Dao and Hunter, but this wouldn’t be enough to keep the reader engaged if it weren’t for the character of Dao. She is as fascinating for the reader as she is for Hunter.
Dao knows nothing about how to navigate her newly discovered world, but also has none of the dissembling or conniving that goes with that world. She has a native wit and intelligence which has enabled her to teach herself complex maths and a facility with machinery. She is interesting enough that you can believe that she would turn Hunter’s world upside down in just a few days. There is a great denouement, scary and eerie, but for me the novel ended too abruptly. But maybe that just means Dao and Hunter will be re-appearing in another tale? Which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.
Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review will also appear on her blog, which you can check out here.