The Bottom Line: Isaac Ho’s spellbinding political thriller is a wake-up call about the consequences of economic war between the U.S. and China
What if China decided to impose economic sanctions on the United States? That’s a question that worried economists have been asking for years, and it’s the triggering event behind Isaac Ho’s foreboding novel.
Set in the near future, where America is in only slightly more debt to China than it is currently, Beijing freezes $135 billion in American assets. After a bloodbath both on Wall Street and in the job sector, Chinese Americans became the victim of hate crimes across the nation. That’s only the beginning. Unless the U.S. President acquiesces to China’s demands, the American economy risks being brought to its knees.
After meeting with the American ambassador, the president addresses the nation. He announces The Repatriation Act, a relocation of Chinese Americans to camps, “isolating them from further hostility and violence.” While far-fetched, it’s a scenario that seems more believable today given nationalist politics than it would have just a few years ago.
Enter Los Angeles pharmacist Henry Chin. Familiar with the story of Japanese interment camps during World War II, Chin isn’t particularly surprised. More recently, he notes, Los Angeles “had a rich history of scapegoating Asians,” including burning of Korean grocery stores in the so-called Rodney King riots, resulting in 54 deaths. Chin, with the help of a good friend his daughter Elizabeth calls “Uncle Clyde,” escapes from a roundup at UCLA’s Rose Bowl and seeks refuge in the mountains. But as Chin knows all too well, there’s no guarantee that life outside the city will be any safer.
In Chin, Ho has created a veritable everyman who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a country where virtually everyone regardless of race or belief has been mistaken for someone else, Ho deftly illustrates how dangerous identity – real or assumed – can be during a lead up to war. As a protective measure, Chin pretends not to understand Chinese, while Elizabeth observes, “Most people think I’m Mexican. You look Korean, sort of. Why can’t we just lie?”
In the audiobook version, narrator Anthony Lee perfectly embodies both Chin and his daughter, creating an immersive experience that will make for more than a few anxious driveway moments. But in a year when the news cycle is dominated by an investigation into a U.S. President’s alleged secret dealings with a foreign power, it’s Lee’s performance of the president – who finds himself intellectually and strategically outwitted by his counterparts – that really resonates.
While enthralling, Ho’s book is also the kind of work that can truly change the way readers view foreign policy – and each other.