I found A Cup of Light (2002) an odd book, not easily categorised. That is not to say that books should be easy to categorise. In fact probably the reverse is true; non-genre novels are generally considered superior to genre ones. This book doesn’t fit into any one genre and seems to have a bit of everything – mystery, crime and romance. But nor does it rise above genre; none of these elements is fully worked out and none of it is very compelling. I could easily have put it down and not picked it up again.
Lia Frank is an expert in Chinese porcelain who is sent to Beijing to appraise a collection which has somewhat mysteriously appeared on the market. We also meet the Chinese businessman who is organising the sale, the consignee in Hong Kong, the potential buyer and the ‘ah chan’, or smuggler, who is organising transport for the collection. Then there is the master potter, the Chinese museum curator and the American researcher. There seems to be something stereotypical about all of them, despite attempts by the author to individualise them.
Lia’s particular attributes – besides love for and knowledge of Chinese porcelain – are that she is deaf, and that she has learnt to use a memory system that relates specific memories to places, sometimes called the ‘method of loci’. She likes to remove her hearing aids, shut out the world and turn in on herself. She uses the memory system in appraising ceramics, being able to recall how one pot resembles another in every catalogue or collection in the world. Although this capacity seems a bit too good to be true, it is in fact a recognised art. Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall has a prodigious memory, and seeks the fabled ‘memory device’ to help him further; Tony Judt uses a similar process in The Memory Chalet, and I believe that Hannibal Lector is also an adept. But could she really recall verbatim accounts of the history of the Emperor’s art collection several pages long?
I guess the main interest of the book is supposed to be the gorgeous ceramics Lia is dealing with.
I looked at some pictures of the sort of thing she is describing and can see how beautiful they are, but I certainly couldn’t ever feel that their beauty was somehow on a higher plane, as she does. I found the discussion of fakes interesting: ‘What exactly made a fake a fake, when everyone who saw it was sure it was real? What lay deeper in it to recognize?’ Great ceramics were often copied, by way of tribute, not fraud. Lia is afraid that she will fail to recognise fakes that might be in the collection, and a fake chicken cup – on the cover of the paperback edition – is a motif in the story. But it is a motif in a minor key, and fakes are not really important in the story.
For me, the most appealing aspect of the book is the history of how the ceramics come to be up for sale. No one knows the full story of what happened when the best of the Imperial treasure, of which this is a part, had to be moved from Beijing because of the Japanese invasion. Most – probably all of it – made it to Nanjing, but from there it was split into three sections for transport, and it is possible that some was lost or stolen. When Mones wrote, there was no history in English of the flight of the collection. (There is now: The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures (2007), by J S Elliott with D Shambaugh.) But I don’t mind that Mones is guessing what might have happened; I just don’t find her account (one of the pieces Lia remembers) convincing. And it doesn’t explain how the collection has appeared at this time. This is another example of the way in which the story develops in one direction, only to peter out.
I wonder also what other readers will think of the right of the Chinese to keep their treasures in their own country, and of the legitimacy of an art market driven by rich, reclusive collectors. Is the flight of Imperial art toward the West in the twenty first century that different from the flight of Imperial art away from the Japanese in the twentieth? This is not a question Mones asks.
You can read more about Nicole Mones here.