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Sober and searching yet sublimely comic, this impressive debut about a modern-day missionary in Taiwan charts a journey away from reflexive faith and toward a broader understanding of the world and its ways. Reminiscent of the work of Graham Greene and Norman Rush, but possessing a quirky innocence and gravitas all its own, the novel is crammed with heady matters, clashes of cultures, ill-considered schemes and unrequited love. Vincent Saunders, a man with strong religious beliefs, leaves his tiny Illinois hamlet to take a job as a Christian missionary in Taiwan. As the only volunteer in the mid-sized city of Toulio, he establishes and runs the ministry house, while teaching English classes to make ends meet. His Toulio acquaintances are an odd bunch: fellow boarder Alec, a foul-mouthed, hashish-smoking Scot; Shao-fei, the crippled son of Vincent's landlady; Gloria, a late-arriving volunteer with a passion for Chinese calligraphy and proselytizing. There is also Mr. Gwa, a local businessman, who offers Vincent $10,000 to go to mainland China, find the lovely young girl who has long bewitched the rich merchant, and pretend to marry her in order to bring her back. At first refusing to take the job on moral grounds, Vincent is forced to reconsider after he succumbs to the aggressive advances of Trudy, a wayward teenage girl in one of his English classes, which costs him his job and standing in the community. Rethinking Mr. Gwa's offer, he heads for China to bring back Kai-Ling, the man's bride. It is during this memorable journey to the heart of modern China that Vincent comes of age, emotionally and spiritually, enduring thieves, bizarre encounters and false promises from a reluctant bride with a lover on the side. Artfully pacing the series of revelations that rock the book on its way to a surprising conclusion, Dalton revises conventional assumptions about contemporary China and collective cultural views of love and marriage. This is a noteworthy first novel by a writer to watch. (Apr.)
Forecast: The publisher is solidly behind this stellar effort, and Dalton will embark on a six-city author tour. This could be one of the spring's—if not the year's—biggest debuts.