Betsy Tobin's fourth novel is the story of an imagined survivor of the 2004 disaster in Morecambe Bay which claimed the lives of 21 Chinese cockle-pickers. Illegal immigrant Wen's fate is interwoven with those of two women, his twin sister Lili and depressive alcoholic Angie, who has aborted her own suicide attempt in order to pull him half-drowned from the sea.
Addled with whisky and moved by his incoherent terror of any contact with the authorities, Angie takes Wen back to the house she has inherited from her mother, who had committed suicide in the bay herself a year ago to the day. Here, in the shadow of unspeakable tragedy, the two enter a nether world of sex and near-wordless companionship that sustains both.
In London, Wen's sister Lili attempts to follow his trail. Believing him dead, she has come to England to lay his ghost, and is staying with Wen's ex-girlfriend Jin while teaching at a language school. At 28, Lili has defined herself through her brother and never had a proper relationship with any other man. Miracle babies, pulled alive from the rubble of an earthquake that killed their family, brought up by step-parents, Lili and Wen have never been apart until wanderlust set Wen upon his ill-fated path to Morecambe's famously treacherous sands.
Crimson China tells of Wen's forging of a new identity as Lili unwillingly accepts that she too must live her own life. The story is complicated by the ever-present threat of the Snakeheads, the ruthless people-smugglers to whom Wen is in debt.
How long can Wen, a fugitive from both state and underworld, stay hidden in his suburban haven? Will Lili find love with Adrian, the widower whose adopted Chinese daughter she teaches? What will happen when she finds out that the brother she has mourned as dead is alive? Will the Snakeheads exact terrible revenge?
Tobin knows how to spin a tale and keep the pages turning. She captures the sense of alienation felt by her characters, and the quiet desperation of an invisible underclass. The book falls down on some clunky plotting and poor exposition, such as Wen's stepmother stiltedly filling us in on a bit of Chinese history. I would rather have had more of a sense of their real lives back home in China. The pasts of all characters are sketchy, and there's little sense of place, whether China, London or Morecambe Bay - the peculiarities of which are scarcely hinted at.
Nevertheless, Crimson China is a sensitive and succesful evocation of loneliness and displacement: a study of profound loss ultimately redeemed by the mundane reality of a bungalow in Morecambe.