A plane crash in the Kachin jungle kicks off this vividly-realized thriller which also has plenty to say about military rule in the Myanmar (formerly Burma) of the previous decade and the battle of its some states for independence from it.
American George Wilford, a washed-up lawyer in his late fifties, is forced into employment with Stuart & Drake, based in Yangon, as part of a rescue deal for his original firm in Singapore. His new boss, Seth Drake, tasks him and another colleague, Molly Durbeville, with investigating an Air Burma crash. There’s a big problem. Drake admits that, in a hurry, he signed off a legal opinion for a lender to Air Burma without checking that the required insurance policy was in place. It wasn’t. With Air Burma short of cash, the lender will come after Stuart & Drake for the money.
Although the firm has malpractice cover, Drake’s action will be classed as gross negligence and the insurer won’t pay out. Unless George and Molly can find a plausible reason for the crash, which would not have been covered by the original policy thereby rendering Stuart & Drake’s opinion irrelevant, the firm will go bust.
It’s an impossible mission, not least because the Burmese police are interested in one of the senior Burmese lawyers at the firm, Nandar Htway, telling George that she is a potential witness in a murder investigation and he must report on her. To apply further pressure, George is allotted a tail himself, Police Sergeant Aung Myat Soe.
The unlikely trio band together on an adventure into the northern Kachin state, which is controlled by the rebel Kachin Independence Army. With the help of Zaw Dan, a Kachin general and Air Burma shareholder, who also happens to be Molly’s lover, they uncover a web of jade smuggling, corruption and political intrigue which leads right back to Stuart & Drake itself.
The plot is complicated—the legal details can be long-winded—but it’s clear that author James Finch knows his subject. As a lawyer himself, Finch can flavor the prose with in-jokes and a few stabs at his profession. Meanwhile, the developing nation of Myanmar he presents is intimately and honestly described: dysfunctional warts and all. In one particularly evocative scene, George is sitting in his (theoretically modern) office, where the electricity regularly cuts out, inhaling the scent of mold and watching geckos run across the ceiling.
Nor does Finch shirk from detailing the impact of the country’s political struggles on its desperate population and the landscape they inhabit. The Kachin state is the source of the world’s best quality jade but its procurement comes at great human cost. Finch writes:
Then the trees between the mines were gone, and craters in the earth inhaled and exhaled creatures, dirty, wet and scrambling. They, too, were human, like us, but naked, almost. These were the miners, who lived for heroin. They never looked up.
Having the story told from eight different viewpoints adds to the complexity and can trip up the unfocused reader. However, a simpler structure would have compromised Finch’s ability to show how deep political schisms and cronyism run through all levels of Burmese society and their terrifying effects on the innocent.
This feeds into a major theme in the novel: overcoming the past. George has a terrible secret from his military service while Molly, a feisty Englishwoman in her thirties, is burdened with the scandal of a previous relationship and childhood abuse. Both characters have ended up in Burma due to these events. In this way, they are also a metaphor for the country itself. As a former colleague of George’s, Cho Cho, explains:
The foreigners are here at our pleasure. But the past is not. It controls us and we cannot will it away. It is a curse that we will never break.
By the end of the novel, Molly and George have reconciled their issues. The reader is left with the image of George realizing that it is he who is in control of his fate now, not his past. There is scope to move on and make change. In this sentiment, there is an unwritten hope that Myanmar too can shake off its history and shape a new future.