Shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers, Between Darkness and Light is a novel about blindness, a war novel in which there is no fighting, a post-war novel about the meeting of East and West, and an unconventional love story.
The book begins in Shanghai in 1900 and tells the story of Wang Weijun. Blinded in one eye during a childhood game of William Tell, Wang loses himself in a world of magic, languages and Shakespeare. An excellent student, Wang has high hopes of breaking away from the old ways of his country and continuing his study abroad, but an unfortunate, or perhaps unwise, choice sees his future veering off course. So, when the Great War begins, he seizes the opportunity to leave his past behind by signing up as a translator for the Chinese Labour Corps.
We follow Wang on his long journey to France. What he finds there jolts him out of his one-eyed admiration for the West and plunges him into a new and wholly unexpected battle in which East and West, tragedy and comedy, love and suffering meet, and the darkness of war is illuminated in ways he could never have anticipated.
Only recently have researchers begun to take account of the truth that the same terrible events that brought war memorials to almost every village in England also brought right into the middle of the horror tens of thousands of men from another deep-rooted civilization on the other side of the world. After a century and more that long-forgotten story may have become hard to grasp. But now this vivid narrative takes us deep into the heart of the matter. Of all the imaginings of those times, this is a tale that stands out. There is nothing else quite like this; Roy Peachey can be completely proud of his unique achievement.
T. H. Barrett, Professor Emeritus of East Asian History, SOAS
Between Darkness and Light is a tragic epic set in a historical period that continues to haunt relationships between China and the western world. Tens of thousands of Chinese labourers, often working under the most hazardous and inhumane conditions, contributed to the allies’ victory in World War I. Yet when the war was over, western nations scorned their Chinese ally and unilaterally took away the one thing China had fought for, namely the sovereignty over the former German concessions in Shandong province. Against the backdrop of this diplomatic outrage, Roy Peachey tells us the moving story of one of the interpreters assigned to the Chinese Labour Corps, Wang Weijun from Shanghai, a remarkable young man on a quest to give meaning to his life, find clarity of vision (literally), and put to good use his linguistic skills. With keen eye for historical and cultural detail, Peachey takes his readers on a sad odyssey across China and around the world, ending in a no-man’s land where Weijun finds the fate that was foreshadowed from the start — but with a surprising, humane twist.
Professor of Chinese Literature, University of Notre Dame, USA
Peachey’s protagonist, one-eyed Wang the translator, opens up to us a dazzling, harrowing and hitherto unrecorded history: that of the Chinese Labour Corps in World War One. Recruited in their thousands to toil behind the lines, they were sent to the Front after the Armistice, digging up the rotting fragments of the dead from stinking temporary graves and sorting them for proper burial. Sickness, suicide and unexploded bombs take their arbitrary toll in disfigurement and worse; and Wang himself, their translator, interpreter and historian, is among the ruined survivors.
In this compelling and audacious novel about sight and insight, perspective and translation, Peachey’s Wang Weijun ‘turns disfigurement to his advantage’ and examines China and the West through a wryly humorous and uniquely perceptive solitary lens. He is forced to see both worlds through his one good brown eye and mischievously declares his hybridity with a bright blue enamel one in the empty socket of the other. Fascinated by the translator’s quantum trick of being in two places at once, he delights both in sleights of hand with spare eyeballs and packs of cards, and in conjuring bridges across the gaps of monolingual incomprehension.
Perhaps to compensate for his missing eye, he is single-mindedly insatiable in learning English and French, in absorbing and interpreting Western literature and culture, and in contrasting them with his own – not always favourably. In doing so he pays the price of alienation and realises that a translator is ‘someone who will never belong’; but he nevertheless gives names, narratives and identity to the forgotten dead, among whom he was both a companion and an outsider. His redemption, and theirs, is in the telling of this story.
Martin Alexander, Editor-in-Chief, Asia Literary Review