Part spy novel, part mystery, part romance, Aimee Liu’s Flash House deviates somewhat from her previous focus on Chinese American life. This third novel is set in twentieth century India, Kashmir, and Sinkiang, in the tumultuous years of the communist revolution in China and shortly after the British partition of India. Joanna Shaw, the American director of a shelter that rescues Indian girls from prostitution, determines to free a ten-year-old rape victim from a New Delhi flash house, or brothel. Their story is narrated by the child Kamla, alternating with third-person sections from Joanna’s perspective.
After her journalist husband Aidan disappears in a plane crash and government officials seem reluctant to act, Joanna journeys north to Kashmir to search for him, together with her young son Simon, Kamla, and Aidan’s writer friend Lawrence Malcolm. They are abruptly plunged into two dangerous years of shifting relationships and murky political loyalties that will raise more questions than they answer. In short, nothing is as it seems, and no one can be trusted.
Liu’s childhood in India has enabled her to recreate in detail its rich imagery, its customs, even the echoes of the Hindi language. For these the novel can be read with pleasure. Unfortunately it is also plot-heavy, much of the dialogue is uninspired, and characters are largely stereotyped, with the notable exception of the girl Kamla. In spite of repeated betrayals by those she dares to trust, Kamla remains shrewd, plucky, and resourceful beyond her years. A welcome addition is the brief epilogue set fifty years later—hardly the traditional happy ending, yet quite satisfying.