Monday, February 15, 2010
In this sequel to the bestselling book My Splendid Concubine, Robert Hart's story continues. After the death of his beloved concubine at the hands of a disgruntled assassin, Hart moves his remaining concubine, Ayaou, and himself to safer quarters; But this does not abate his feelings of fear and desolation for the safety of Ayaou. Robert is perplexed over who would wish to do his family harm, but he does not have the luxury of time to ponder these things, for he is needed in governmental capacities in China. Working his way up from an interpreter to Inspector General of Maritime Customs, Hart befriends some of the most powerful men in China and brings revolutionary ideas and change to a country where time seems to have stood still. Although his star continues to rise, he is held back by his love of Ayaou, knowing that by marrying her, his career will falter. Still, Robert staunchly refuses to leave Ayaou and fathers children with her, hoping that one day he will be able to bring his relationship with her into the light. In this poignant tale of love and duty, Llloyd Lofthouse illuminates one of the most fascinating and forgotten men in history, the loyal and ingenious Robert Hart.
The more I delve into historical fiction, the more I realize that there are so many people and places that I have no experience with, and I am always surprised to discover that there is so much richness in these seemingly quiet stories. My experience reading this book is no different. I am not sure how I had never heard of Robert Hart, but after reading this second installment of his story, I have found another character in the annals of history to ponder over and admire.
This book was written in fairly simple language. Starting out, I had felt that this might be a hindrance to the tale, for it might fail to capture the more complex nature of the plot. As I read on, I discovered that the choice of unadorned language really made all of the elements of the plot stand out in a way that complicated sentence structure wouldn't. It was not a simple story but the fact that it was told in such a simple way fully highlighted the impact of heroism and devotion of the main character. Lofthouse managed to be very through and complex through the use of minimalist language, which I really ended up enjoying and remarking over.
Though the focus was mainly on Robert Hart, I was a bit more interested in his concubine Ayaou, and not due to a fondness for her. I found her to be whiny and self-absorbed and thought that Robert was really a saint for putting up with her. Between her running away when she didn't get what she wanted and being petulant because she couldn't figure out what direction she wanted to take her relationship in, it seemed remarkable to me that Robert continued to love and adore her throughout. It became ever clearer to me that they were not really a good match, and why others, including his family in Ireland, would object to their marriage. Though Robert does some amazing things in his career in China, I thought the most amazing thing he was able to do was love Ayaou unconditionally for so many years. To me it was remarkable that he was such a glutton for punishment.
Hart himself was a wonderful character to be invested with. He had a quiet determination and a no-nonsense attitude towards his work for the consulate. Where countless others failed, he was able to triumph due to his strict moral code and the fact that he understood Chinese culture so fully. As he worked his way up the ladder, he became more and more well regarded until he was hobnobbing with the emperors. When the elite of China began to call him "Our Hart," it was clear to me that he had managed something that no other Westerner was able to do: blend in so perfectly that he became in essence, Chinese. He never failed to rise to the occasion, and no matter what he was asked to sacrifice, he did so with aplomb. He pushed through some pretty magnificent changes in China and was responsible for building most of China's railroads, post offices and schools.
Much was said in this book about the disparities between Eastern and Western culture. Robert's success is mostly due to the fact that he thought of the Chinese as a worthy people with a culture that was not to be absorbed and destroyed, but rather a culture to be honored and preserved. Throughout the story, many other figures are highlighted, and most of these men had a reprehensible attitude towards the country and its inhabitants. Men that thought of the Chinese as savages, good only for hard labor and extermination. These men came from all over the world to subjugate China and steal its resources, never willing to preserve and replenish the beauty that had existed for thousands of years.
I enjoyed this look at a time and place that was fraught with uncertainty and was pleased to get to know the force of nature that was Robert Hart. I think that those readers with a discerning eye for Chinese history would be greatly impacted by this book and learn a lot about not only the area, but the politics of the time period. Don't let the simple style fool you, this is a story full of bravery, honor and sacrifice. A very compelling read.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.