An Orientalist’s daughter goes to Japanese-occupied Manchuria to recoup her father’s legacy, in a first novel from Australian author Petit.
One sultry autumn day in 1937, the corpulent Theo Kolbe, a cagey dealer of Oriental antiques and artifacts, turns up in the Hong Kong morgue after having dropped dead during a walk in the park. His exquisite daughter Leah, 19 and fresh out of finishing school, learns that Theo’s solicitors have lost her inheritance in a risky offshore investment scheme. Soon, a tall Chinese man with vague political motives, Mr. Chang, convinces Leah that her only hope to revive Theo’s business is to head for Manchuria, now a Japanese-controlled regime ruled by figurehead emperor Pu Yi. Before departing, though, she meets and beds handsome Cezar da Silva, a Eurasian from the Portuguese colony of Macau. On the train to Manchuria with her loyal amah, An-li, and another of Chang’s recruits, White Russian middle-aged hedonist Sonia, Leah is pestered by a meddling English journalist. In Manchuria, she must tiptoe around a Japanese police chief while bolstering her cover story, namely that she’s an advance person for some British entomologists who want to study ants, a subject dear to emperor Pu Yi’s heart. Her real mission: to smuggle imperial treasures back to Hong Kong, along with their guardian, Chief Eunuch Quan, and receive a 5 percent commission for her trouble. She succeeds in escaping with the treasure, and with the volatile Quan, who stabs Sonia in a hissy of distrust. On the return train, the newly sinister Cezar crops up again, and, while Leah’s party is stranded in besieged Nanking, he appropriates the contraband jewelry, except for a broach Quan swallows. There’ll be flight to the South China Sea, boarding and looting by Japanese sailors, gastrointestinal distress, and gunplay before the traumatic close of her mission leaves Leah primed to follow in Theo’s double-dealing footsteps, however ineptly.
Too many characters and loose ends, though a decorative evocation of place and period.