TAI-PAN by James Clavell


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A fat, gusty, commercial historical novel that will most probably sweep the bookstore windows on the strength of its narrative, Tai-Pan is a much better book than Clavell's first, King Rat. It describes the British occupation of Hong Kong in 1841 and an empire built upon opium smuggling. Tai-Pan means "supreme power" and seadog Dirk Struan's Noble House is the supreme money power on the "godrotting" island. Struan's rival is aging, one-eyed Tyler Brock, an opposition which extends nepotically through their grown sons and daughters. Also in the power play are Russians, Americans and several Chinese factions. Brock, the island's second richest operator, wants to be Tai-Pan himself, steal Noble House from Struan, and set up his own sons as supreme powers. Both men smuggle opium for cash in order to buy tea. Struan ("a giant of a man, his face weathered by a thousand storms") amasses mistresses and illegitimate children like a figure pipedreamed from uncut opium. His great love now is May-may, whose magnificently shameless dialogue is an original mixture of Scottish-Chinesepigin English. The story's burden is will Struan's legitimate son prove worthy of becoming Tai-Pan, or will his much brighter natural Chinese son, the leader of Hong Kong's anarchist movement? The climax is a Supreme Wind (typhoon) hitting the island...Seduced by excellent period research, Clavell solemnly believes in his claptrap characters. But the whole last third of the novel is compacted of obligatory scenes that hook the reader who will be drawn into this fantasy world like white fumes into a joss pipe.... Publisher promotion, which will be strong, may not even be necessary.
Pub Date: May 16th, 1966
ISBN: 0385343256
Page count: 602pp
Publisher: Atheneum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1966


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