A well constructed page-turner, Robert F. Delaney’s first novel is for Canadians watching the Huawei affair play out, a timely expose of what it’s like to operate in China as a North American, whether it be as a journalist, an investor or even a spy. The Wounded Muse, published in November 2018 by Mosaic Press, is a fiction based on Delaney’s experiences reporting business news for outlets including Dow Jones and Bloomberg from the mid-1990s.
Jake Bradley, born underprivileged to alcoholic parents in rural Kentucky, has advanced on the strength of his intelligence and gift for languages, to become a business reporter for Toeler News service in Beijing. Schooled in a provincial university, he is fluent in Mandarin, and leads a comfortable life as a plugged-in, semi-closeted gay man in the Chinese capital. He meets Qiang, a Chinese national who has been working in California’s Silicon Valley and has returned to his home country to document the rapid changes and resulting social displacement that has been going on in China with the ramping up of its economic growth and preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In helping Qiang with his video project, Jake falls hard for the Chinese man, and then Qiang suddenly disappears, presumably taken into detention for reasons no one can surmise.
A parallel love story concerns Dawei, a dishwasher in a hotel in Macau, who has drifted there from his poor village, Yongfu, in the far northeast province of Heilongjiang. Dawei meets Zhihong, a Beijing bureaucrat on a recreational visit to Macau, with his boss who runs a section of the government overseeing the film business. Zhihong, it turns out, is married, and after his under-the-bridge tryst with Dawei, quickly drops him. But Dawei, with little money to live on, follows Zhihong to Beijing and gets a job as a courier for a travel agency.
With a minimum of byzantine twists, the two plotlines intertwine as Jake encounters Dawei and befriends him and Zhihong is drawn into the Sun Qiang fiasco, working in an intelligence role in his ministry. Qiang’s sister Diane, employed by a European bank in Beijing, and his former husband Ben, a researcher at MIT in the Boston area, join Jake in trying to extract Qiang from detention. The action plays out in 2007 with flashbacks to 2004 and in between and forms a credible tale of intrigue and human rights abuses against a backdrop of China’s development as a super power, taking its place on the world stage.
Delaney’s prose is serviceable and he ratchets up the tension as Jake gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, emotionally and politically, in his search for Qiang. He doesn’t spare the details when it comes to men grappling in secret, but the sex is not gratuitous and the dialogue only occasionally forced. In making the transition from journalism to fiction, Delaney has wisely stuck to what he knows and the result is an informative narrative of love and identity in dangerous times.