My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I saw Incensed at the library, and since it was the library, I was willing to follow an eye-catching cover. I did not know that this was a sequel (in that it follows a character who was the protagonist of a previous book). I did not know what to expect in it. “Taiwanese gangland thriller” seemed about all that I could really gather from the jacket, but that was enough to sell me. I’m glad I followed my gut on this one.
Most surprisingly of all, while it’s technically a “Taiwanese gangland thriller,” the core narrative is about this food stand owner, Jing-nan (narrator and primary protagonist), dealing with the reintroduction of family into his life. He lost his parents while in college and dropped out to run his father’s food stand, which he did successfully. He lost a childhood love, found new love, and seemingly settled into a routine. Then his crime boss uncle reenters his life, and Jing-nan, who seems to long for family even if he doesn’t fully register it, is entrusted with watching over his teenager niece, who was kicked out of yet another school. Her father, Jing-nan’s uncle, is letting her visit Taipei so long as she promises to drop her biker boyfriend and refocus on school. Jing-nan’s a convenient guardian because he’s family and he already lives in the city.
This could have gone a few ways that would have felt predictable or safe. Instead, the story largely focuses on Jing-nan’s tenuous relationship with his newfound family, and on the city of Taipei itself. Jing-nan takes his cousin Mei-ling to a lot of restaurants, and he spends a lot of time at his own stand in the Shilin Night Market. You get a sense of the flavor (quite literally) of the city. There’s also a lot on the complex culture and politics of Taiwan, with a particular focus on Taiwan’s complex relationship with mainland China, the interactions between criminal organizations and the public, the ethnic tensions among Taiwanese, Taiwanese prejudices and opinions about immigrants, and the status of the LGBT community. These issues are framed both in a broader context, often through exposition or dialogue or background events, and in the characters and main plot of Incensed. It’s a focused way to tell the story that cleverly sets up the impending conflicts and revelations of the final act in the reader’s mind before it dawns on the protagonist.
That final act is triggered by the disappearance of Mei-ling. Jing-nan follows a series of clues and cleverly tracks her down, but the reader is left with a secondary investigation to piece through: just who his cousin really is. It sounds tacky, like there’s some big mystery, when I type it this way. The book’s jacket also suggests genre tackiness: “But Mei-ling is also hiding a secret–one that puts her in harm’s way.” That secret is interesting and earned, but it’s not nearly so dramatic as all that makes it sound. It’s fitting and ties into the novel’s themes. But to say more would be to spoil it.
I also liked that Jing-nan is an unreliable narrator. He’s twenty-five, and he has the mentality of a twenty-five-year-old: he thinks that he’s figured everything out, that he’s not so foolish as he was as a kid, that he has better judgment, that he’s wiser and more reserved. Yet he’s rather pretentious and still has some growing to do. He views himself as something of a hero for a freak occurrence, yet his alleged bravery is repeatedly undermined by what happens. He has loud opinions about music, and is an obsessive Joy Division fan, but doesn’t seem aware of how he’s constructed an identity around this fandom. And that fandom causes a huge blind spot–he can’t understand or relate to his cousin’s interest in singing pop music, and he openly derides her taste for much of the novel. (Fascinatingly, he has such a limited view of the creative process that he believes that musicians start out good, as though everyone doesn’t start at zero regardless of talent.) Jing-nan also reaches a number of revelations and does a bit of self-reflection throughout the novel, but he almost always attributes it to himself when the lessons he learns are often more-or-less dictated to him by his friends and family.
The writing itself is fast-paced and dynamic. Sentences are typically short and often blunt. Chapters breeze by. It’s a good read for a Sunday afternoon.
There are some references to Jing-nan’s past that are bewilderingly dramatic and under-developed–but only if you don’t know going in that this is a sequel! Frankly, as long as you know it’s a sequel, I don’t think that reading the first book is necessary to fully appreciate this one. It’s a good, fun read, and it’s deeper than I expected.
And for those who already read the book or who don’t care about spoilers: I thought Mei-ling was a great character! She’s smart and funny and far more respectful to her cousin than her spoiled brat image suggests. I realized that there was more to her far earlier than Jing-nan’s gradual revelations. He was rude and self-obsessed; she was passionate and goal-focused. He couldn’t get past her surface image because of her tense relationship with her bigoted and criminal father and because she treated her father’s criminal goons with disdain. (The sexually exploitative pictures that he discovers don’t help, but that makes Mei-ling, in my mind, someone who doesn’t fully understand the consequences of her behavior, like a typical teen, and who was exploited as a result of her ambition and naivete. That interpretation sets up what happens in the final act quite nicely, I think.)
I also suspected rather early on that a lot of Mei-ling’s behavior problems were linked to her repressed sexual identity. Jing-nan really bumbles through things before he catches on. I was quite pleased with how Ed Lin explored the subject of queer sexual identity through the perspective of a hetero-normative outsider (and I suppose that’s appropriate, too; Lin’s married to a woman, and a more intimate depiction probably would have felt dishonest).
My biggest disappointment was that we don’t really see Mei-ling’s crisis of identity resolved. Once her ordeal as an exploited sex worker is ended and she is reluctantly “rescued” by her family, it is suggested that she will be put back into a fairly confined box by her father once more. It’s a tragic ending, and a dark one, and I don’t know how much of that was intentional. I’d certainly like to read a sequel that showed what ended up happening to Mei-ling.