Friday, June 15, 2012
Book Review: THE CONCUBINE SAGA by Lloyd Lofthouse
I have to confess: I read Lloyd Lofthouse’s The Concubine Saga, while I was teaching in China and I really think my review is impacted by that fact. The saga tells the story of Robert Hart, a low-level interpreter in Britain’s Foreign Service, who went on to become a trusted advisor to China’s Qing royal family. Lofthouse credits much of Hart’s tremendous success in China to his relationship with his concubine, Ayaou, and builds his novels around that relationship. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not so much for the love story, but for its tremendous insights into the complex relationship between China and the West. The Concubine Saga brings together two previously released novels: My Splendid Concubine and its sequel, Our Hart.Putting two novels together isn’t always a winning strategy, but I think in this case the two novels really do form a complete work. The story opens with Hart, a Methodist from Northern Ireland, trying to redeem himself after a dissolute stay at University. His plan is to make a name for himself in China, and return triumphantly home. He never could have anticipated, however, how living in China would change him. Hart arrived in China during the height of the Taiping Rebellion, when Southern China was a complex war zone where the Taiping “Longhairs,” based in Nanking, fought not only the Chinese, but British and Portuguese forces trying to secure China’s trade routes. Hart’s position in the British consulate in Ningpo brought him into the conflict, and he met his future concubine, Ayaou, during a raid he participated in to take back British opium – and secondarily, the local boat people who were helping the British – from the rebels. What Lofthouse does very well is bring the world of 19th century China to life. He gives disturbing insight into the place of women in the society, helping the reader understand the cultural issues that led to the concubine system. He also underscores the ethnic tensions between the Manchu, founders of the Qing dynasty, and the majority Han Chinese, whose ambitions the Manchu kept in check. He underscores the relationship between language and culture, and points out that while the Chinese writing system served to unify, spoken language served as a great divider, both socially and economically, between China’s many ethnic groups. What the author did less well, for me at least, was set up a compelling love story. Hart, through his chivalrous intentions no doubt, winds up with both Ayaou (although he never actually has the opportunity to pay for her properly) and her sister Shao-mei as concubines. The way Hart and the teenaged sisters seem to be “playing house” felt sort of creepy to me. Yes, Hart was a very young man, and Lofthouse does try to underscore his conflict, but the girls were younger than 15, for goodness sake. I had a hard time getting past that. The passages with the two pubescent sisters fighting over Hart’s “sun instrument” were particularly cringe-worthy. Still, as a Westerner working in China, I found myself appreciating the lessons that Hart learned the hard way about “face,” and the place of foreigners in China. Ayaou, although on the lowest rung of the Chinese social ladder, is able to share the culture with Hart, because she has totally absorbed it. This allows him to replace fear with understanding and respect, and makes his success a possibility. This book – well, two books in one – is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in China. But I would also be quick to recommend it to anyone considering living in China for any amount of time, as I thought it really captured the conundrum of the expat life there admirably, even though the events Lofthouse described took place more than 100 years ago. Events happen quickly, but culture changes very slowly. I read this book as part of a Premier Virtual Author Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here. This is another one for the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. Looks like there is little chance of me not finishing that one!