Book Review: “An Echo in the City” — Youth and Injustice in Hong Kong
By Sarah Osman
Vivid descriptions of the oppression activists fighting for democracy in Hong Kong have faced — and continue to — elevates this novel above the usual YA bromides.
YA is an unusual genre. Geared towardsteenagers (often teenage girls), books of this type are nothing if not wide-ranging: a typical storyline can contain a love triangle, a vision of dystopia, lyrical prose, and a heavy-handed commentary on today’s political landscape. At the same time, because YA is so often targeted toward young women, certain tropes are inevitable: forbidden romance, strained familial relationships, identity struggles, etc. K.X. Song’s debut novel An Echo in the City (Little, Brown, 352 pages, 18.99) dutifully checks off a number of these boxes, but its focus on one of 2019’s most tragic events, the protests in Hong Kong, sets it apart.
Split between two narrators, An Echo in the City offers alternative views of the protests. Phoenix, a wealthy high school student who spent her childhood in North Carolina before relocating to Hong Kong with her family, supplies one. Phoenix, aka Nix, is worried about her SAT scores and getting into Yale University. These anxieties are complicated by her having to struggle to navigate the awkward tension between her now-divorced parents. She’s not thought much about politics until her older brother, Osprey, takes her to a protest action with his civic-minded girlfriend, Suki. Phoenix realizes there’s a lot more to the world than academics and begins to document the dissident rabblerousing via an Instagram account.
The second account comes from Kai. After his mother passes in Shanghai, Kai moves to Hong Kong to enroll in the police academy and live with his father, a stern big-shot cop who abandoned his son. Kai’s real dream and passion is art, but he doesn’t have Phoenix’s privilege or money, so he settles for a more suitable job for which he has his father’s approval. After their phones are accidentally mixed up, Kai and Phoenix meet. He realizes he too can become a respected cop by infiltrating the student group’s meetings and learning about the protests in advance. However, being a double agent isn’t as easy as it seems. Soon Kai is torn between his duty and his love for Phoenix.
To her credit, Song carefully balances each voice so that neither overpowers the other. At times, the narrative subtly highlights the income gulf between Kai and Phoenix. The latter, with teenage naiveté, affectionately calls her chauffeur an “uncle.” Still, at times Kai seems a little too aware of how poor he is — he begins to sound more like a talking point than a 17-year-old. For the most part, these sections are few; in fact, the theme of wealth disparity accrues considerable power. That is partly because Phoenix and Kai are likable protagonists. They are everyday kids thrown into a dangerously threatening situation. You root for them because they are simply trying to do the best they can. The star-crossed romance is stale stuff, but it isn’t handled in too overly cheesy a fashion. And be thankful that Song spares us from the dreaded love triangle.
Even better, Song doesn’t hold back in her descriptions of the violence that permeated the protests. Kai’s panic is convincing amid heart-wrenching scenes of teenagers being teargassed. It is a pleasure to report that the authoritarian backdrop is the strongest element in Song’s story. In one chapter, Phoenix interviews Suki’s uncle, who must be smuggled out of Hong Kong because he runs a bookstore filled with controversial material. Hearing his story, a vivid description of the oppression that activists fighting for democracy in Hong Kong have faced — and continue to — elevates this novel above the usual YA bromides. An Echo in the City is an important read for teenagers, but its condemnation of injustice offers plenty for adults to consider as well.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman