The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

The Walled City

There are three rules for survival in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no-one. Always carry your knife.

Right now, my life depends entirely on the first. Run, run, run.

My lungs burn, bite for air. Water stings my eyes. Crumpled wrappers, half-finished cigarettes. A dead animal – too far gone to tell what it used to be. Carpets of glass, bottles smashed by drunk men. All of these fly by in fragments. These streets are a maze. They twist into themselves – narrow, filled with glowing signs and grafittied walls. Men leer from doorways; their cigarettes glow like monsters’ eyes in the dark.

Unusually for a street kid in the Walled City, Jin Ling came to Hak Nam by choice. When her father sold her sister into slavery, it was inevitable that a pretty girl like Mei Yee would end up in the brothels of the Walled City, and Jin followed without a second thought. To keep herself (comparatively) safe she lives as a boy, sleeping rough on the lawless streets until she can find her sister. She doesn’t know how she’ll do it, but she’s not leaving until she can get them both out.

Mei Yee knows she’s lucky, at least by the standards of Hak Nam prostitutes: the Japanese ambassador has taken a liking to her, so while her friends must take three or four clients every night, she’s kept apart for his hands only. She even has the brothel’s only window. But although she’s seen the pain that comes from dreaming of freedom, she can’t seem to switch off her hope. When a boy shows up at her window she’s drawn in by the alternative he presents, even as the ambassador offers to buy her out of the Brotherhood’s hands.

Dai is counting down the days, gradually erasing the charcoal marks from his bedroom wall as his time runs out. If he’s going to save his own life, he needs help from both Jin and Mei Yee — and for that he’ll have to win their trust, selling them promises he might not be able to keep.

The Walled City is told from these three viewpoints: Jin out on the streets; Mei Yee in the brothel; and Dai with his secrets and schemes. As the story begins, Dai recruits Jin to run for him, a job she only accepts as it will get her a glimpse within the walls of the Brotherhood’s fanciest brothel. But it’s not until Jin is injured that Dai realises there might be something worth fighting for, beyond his own freedom. Perhaps he can step up to become worthy of the girls’ trust after all.

Although the subject matter is very dark, the writing style is far from graphic. The horrors of prostitution, poverty, and addiction are sketched out in broad lines, but it’s left to the reader’s imagination to colour in the brutal detail. Descriptions are brief and choppy, and the pages fly by in compelling first-person present. All three point-of-view characters are forced by circumstance to mature beyond their years, becoming fatalistic about the horrors they face on a daily basis. Supporting characters, from the Brotherhood to the street kids, are given the minimum of characterisation — but this doesn’t feel lazy, it feels real, reflecting the necessity of self-absorption when your life is in constant danger.

The eponymous walled city is a character in its own right, and it’s central to the plot. An old fortress, left ungoverned by a quirk of fate, its unique political status gives space for the Brotherhood’s criminal fraternity to thrive. And the impending change of government provides the deadline that drives Dai’s story.

It may be obvious to those who remember the handover of Hong Kong that the setting was inspired by the true story of Kowloon fortress, although names have been changed. The Cantonese flavour comes through in little details, from the characters’ names to the steaming char siu bao that they enjoy. But for all that it’s recognisable, there’s a distinctly dystopian feel. A very quick read, but one that stayed with me long after I turned the final page.

The Walled City is Ryan Graudin’s second novel, and it’s published today.

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