- Book: The Concubine’s Child
- Location: Kuala Lumpur
- Author: Carol Jones
In the 1930s Far East it was tradition for married men to often acquire a concubine or two, even one as young as 16 years old. Sadly, women are still married off at crazily young ages these days in many societies but the damage this is doing to young people is now more in the world’s eye.
Yu Luan arrives in Chan Towkay’s household, in principle to give the family offspring. She has had to leave behind a young man with whom she was determined to make a future life. Chan Towkay’s wife, the “older sister” is barren and has been unable to deliver. The older man, in his sixties, is quite taken with his new acquisition, much to the disgruntlement of his wife who tolerates her presence simply because she understands the necessity for providing an heir, and hopefully a son.
Yu Lan learns the art of strategy and has soon formed an allegiance, but once her baby arrives, her emotional responses begin to overwhelm her. She is simply a vehicle for baby production and the older sister basks in the glory of the new heir. Depression and despair come calling and it is her daily battle to survive emotionally that is at the heart of the story.
In present day Nick and Sarah in London are having difficulty finding a balance in their marriage of several years and when Nick is given the opportunity to take a teaching post in Kuala Lumpur, he drops the bombshell on both his wife and mother, June, when they are together over the Christmas period. He is moving for a couple of years to the Far East in the hope of connecting with his family’s past. Sarah is devastated and cannot grasp that this separation has materialised and June is extremely dubious about his desire to connect with his original, Chinese Chan family.
June knows there are untold mysteries in the Chan family, that ghosts – and in particular the ghostly image of a woman – travel down through the generations, visiting much sadness on their victims, harm even. She asks Nick to steer well clear, but he is a man on a mission, intent on discovering the secrets of the past. Neither June nor Sarah can deter him, to everyone’s cost as it transpires.
Setting is nicely done and the feel of 1930s Malaysia in particular really rises from the pages, the creeping jungle strangles everything in its path and the steamy foliage feels impenetrable. Some of the traditions within the local culture are also evocatively and well described.
I enjoyed reading this novel and was reasonably engrossed right until the end. There were some elements with which I struggled, however. The author rather labours some points (for example, Yu Lan is the unwilling bearer of Chan Towkey’s seed, this we know early on); she can hammer the points home with irksome regularity.
There is a fine line between ramping up tension and disrupting the flow. When authors drop a bombshell without any lead-in, I find myself scurrying back to check that I haven’t missed a major part of the plot somewhere along the line and this disrupts the flow. Indeed, in this novel, there certainly are are a couple of twists that really move the story forward but to my mind at the expense of smooth progression. The balance between the story set in the 1930s and present day is uneven and I felt that Sarah and Nick’s story didn’t get the depth of detail that made the historical storyline so rich.
There is much interesting detail of Yu Lan’s situation and one senses that the author is passionate about dismantling the damaging practise of marrying off very young girls in today’s world.
The writing is very good and with a lighter touch on the storyline I think this author is one to watch.