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Forbidden City    by William Bell order for
Forbidden City
by William Bell
Order:  USA  Can
Seal, 1999 (1990)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Seventeen-year-old Alex Jackson has had a passion for war movies and strategy games ever since his Mom moved out. He and his father have somewhat of an Odd Couple relationship, which makes Alex wonders if the latter 'will ever grow up'. His Dad, one of the top news cameramen in Canada, is a risk-taker with a childlike personality. When asked to go on assignment in Canada, he brings Alex along. In Beijing, Alex takes Chinese lessons and bikes all over the city recording with a hidden camcorder. He also enjoys the company of Lao Xu, even after finding out that the news team's government assigned assistant is an informer. Lao Xu admires the Chinese PLA (People's Liberation Army) and he and Alex share an interest in war. He calls Alex 'Shan Da', Chinese for 'Tall Mountain'.

It is the spring of 1989 and students begin to demand more freedom and to demonstrate in Tian An Men Square. Alex helps the news team report on confrontations between students and military which develop slowly at first, but then escalate into ever increasing violence. At the peak of the massacre, Alex leaves the hotel in search of his father, is swept up in events, and rescued from soldiers by students, who hide him and later assist him in smuggling out the video footage that he has taken. No-one can believe what is happening, that soldiers are shooting thousands of their own people. Alex is especially helped by Xin-hua, a young woman who is a student leader, and he worries about her fate. What will happen to her when he has gone?

Though Alex is injured and has many close calls, he is mostly traumatized by what happens to people around him, by what he witnesses ... 'I hadn't been able to do anything to help. I hadn't been able to stop anything.' When Shan Da returns to Canada, he is a different person and so is his father, who has finally had to grow up. Forbidden City is an exciting read, which documents a horrifying episode of recent Chinese history, and makes very clear that war is not a game.

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