Friday, 1 January 2016

A Paper Son by Jason Buchholz

Grade school teacher and aspiring author Peregrine Long sees a Chinese family on board a ship--in his morning tea. The image inspires him to write the story of this family, but then a woman turns up at his door, claiming that he's writing her family history exactly as it happened. She doesn't like it, but she has one question: What happened to the little boy of the family, her long-lost uncle? Throughout the course of a month-long tempest that begins to wash the peninsula out from beneath them, Peregrine searches modern-day San Francisco and its surroundings--and, through his continued writing, southern China and the Pacific immigration experience of a century ago--for the missing boy. The clues uncovered lead Peregrine to question not only the nature of his writing, but also his knowledge of his own past and his understanding of his identity.
Goodreads description

Where do the ideas for stories come from? It is a question authors are often asked. The answer can be surprising. Anything can act as a stimulus - a conversation overheard, some music wafting from a doorway, a stranger passing in the street, a landscape. If the author is "in the zone" then s/he will detect these stimuli everywhere. Jason Buchholz's fictional author, Peregrine Long, finds inspiration in a cup of tea, in a swim in the rain, in an old man dressed in strange clothes and carrying a rifle in the street... But this is a magic-realist book and it becomes clear, with the arrival of the strange woman accusing him of stealing her family story, that this is more than abstract inspiration. The woman wants to know what happened to her uncle Henry - the boy at the heart of Peregrine's new work. History is leaking into Peregrine's reality. The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction become fluid. 

I use the word "fluid" deliberately. Water in all its forms appears throughout the novel. Peregrine starts the story as a major storm is about to hit San Francisco and it continues throughout the book. The first intimation of the story is in the tea-cup. What Peregrine sees in the cup is Henry's family on a ship returning to China. That water is hugely important is clear but why?

The story becomes a magic-realist mystery. What happened to the boy Henry at the centre of Peregrine's novel and the woman's real-life uncle? Why has Peregrine been chosen as the vehicle for Henry's story? The answer to the mystery can only come by Peregrine listening to his "inspiration" and writing the novel. 

As you can see there are a lot of layers to A Paper Son. The narrative keeps moving from Peregrine's story to Henry's, but the mystery and Jason Buchholz's writing kept this reader's attention.

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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