Set against the backdrop of a war-torn China in the grips of a burgeoning revolution, this sweeping novel with a pair of star-crossed lovers carrying forth the momentum of the melodrama that unfolds in the International Settlement of Junchow in 1928.
In this den of iniquities, where danger lurks not just in the form of opium, prostitution and death, where suspicions of liaison with the Communists could land one in a situation worse than hell itself, 16-year-old daughter, Lydia Ivanova, who, with mother Valentine, live in poverty as exiled White Russian refugees, surviving on whatever largess her pianist mum can coax from gentlemen admirers and the profits Lydia turns from pawning stolen goods.
Her shining fiery hair making her a distinct target for pimps and slavers, Lydia must often depend on her wits to escape being caught but, when she attracted the unwelcome attentions of a criminal gang, the Black Snakes, Chang An Lo, an English-speaking Communist and kung fu master came to her rescue, forging a bond that would grow stronger than mere friendship.
Danger is never far as the two fall in love. Chiang Kai Shek’s troops are on the hunt for Reds like Chang, who has come into possession of the jewels of a tsarina, meant as a gift for the despot’s wife. Even as the Black Snakes gang captured and tortured both of them in turn, their illicit and all-consuming love can only burn all the brighter for the extraordinary obstacles placed in their way: cultural difference, parental objection, political factions within the city itself who are striving to manipulate the chaotic and volatile circumstances to their favour.
As a sub-plot, Lydia’s school headmaster Theo Willoughby, whose fight to keep the school and his happy life with his Chinese mistress, Li Mei, was forced to collude with Li Mei’s estranged father—the leader of the Black Snakes—to traffick opium into Junchow. Their fates would collide, and someone would end up paying a high price for lover and freedom.
The book contains quite a bit of violence, with some poignant moments of tender emotions, to wring some sympathy out of the romantics. Although the narrative lapse into occasional periods of inertia where there is much action, that does not carry the flow of the story forward. Yet, Ms Furnivall’s vivid descriptive, and detailing of the turbulent times and personal upheavals in Lydia’s young life and her struggle to not be oppressed by the depravity and corruption so prevalent in the city are what holds the reader’s interest.
In fact, I’m already looking forward to the follow-up novel, where Lydia attempts to find her father, long thought to be dead in concentration camp.
IMB rating: 3.5