Writing about another culture is a great risk. What if you presume? Misrepresent? Of course, the risk is lessened if you represent the culture with the compassion and accuracy derived from deep knowledge. American Nicole Mones has worked and traveled in China for more than 20 years, and her knowledge of the country illuminates every page of A Cup of Light, her second novel.

Lia Frank is an American art appraiser sent to Beijing to generate an inventory of some ancient Chinese pottery slated for purchase. The stash turns out to be a gold mine, but not without the occasional forgery. Thus the age-old question arises: what is real? And if a pot can deceive, what about a person? Enter American Michael Doyle. His battle with cancer drove his wife away, and he has come to China to undertake the grim task of researching lead poisoning caused by exhaust fumes, as well as to forget his past. In contrast, Lia is in the business of remembering the minutiae of art history. Opposites attract. They meet, kiss, separate, reunite. But is it real? Meanwhile, the art deal proceeds. When the Japanese invaded China during World War II, fears arose that they would steal China's prodigious art collection. As a result, the Chinese scattered much of the collection throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Lia's stash is part of this diaspora, and thus a struggle ensues. The Chinese government wants the ancient pottery, but has neither the clout nor the cash to get it. To compensate, the government is known to execute art traffickers. If the stash makes it to Hong Kong, the deal is a success; if it doesn't, axes may fall. To complicate things further, a Chinese airliner explodes in mid-air and rumors fly that the U.S. shot it down accidentally, of course.

Miraculously, Mones weaves these many threads into a seamless whole, using pure and brilliant prose. Both the story and the style in which it is told are hybrids of East and West, once thought to be as incompatible as oil and water. A Cup of Light bodes well indeed for rapprochement between two empires, two systems and even two lonely souls. Kenneth Champeon is a writer living in Thailand.

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