Lanchester follows Mr. Phillips (2000) with yet another book unlike his others, albeit every bit as absorbing: the brilliant tale of Hong Kong over 75 years seen through the lives of three who lived there.
Dreaming of the exotic, Tom Stewart is 22 when he leaves his pub-owning family in England and, in 1935, books passage for Hong Kong. As usual, everything Lanchester touches comes miraculously to life, and Tom’s passage east is no exception—nor are the people he meets on board, most particularly one Sister Maria, the young Chinese nun who teaches him Cantonese during the six-week voyage (there’s a wager involved as to whether she can succeed) and who in this and other far deeper ways influences his life forever. In Hong Kong, Tom quickly finds success in the hotel business—but then WWII gradually takes the world in its crushing grip and, after attempting to work in the resistance against the Japanese, he finds himself arrested, beaten, and imprisoned instead. Many die—close friends and co-workers among them—but Tom survives, recovers, returns to hotel work, and takes part in the extraordinary economic rise of postwar Hong Kong—though not without one grievous element of disaster and terror, when his life is touched once again by Sister Marie—and then quickly in turn (and forever) by the deadly criminal hand of Hong Kong’s financial underworld. An intelligent but wounded figure—much like a character from Graham Greene—Tom lives through the ’80s and then the ’90s in Hong Kong, his story filled out for the reader by the stories of two others that intertwine with his in wondrously unexpected ways: one about a youthful Chinese business man, the other about a coarsened young English journalist who goes east to make—successfully—her fortune.
Extraordinarily knowledgeable, ingeniously woven, and powerfully engrossing: a portrait of nothing less than an entire piece of the world and most of a century.