Inconvenient Daughter by Lauren Sharkey, Akashic Books will be published on 23 June, 2020. Keep an eye out for it.
There are times when I stumble across an unexpected delight, and Lauren Sharkey’s debut novel, Inconvenient Daughter is one of those times. It is short, tightly constructed and strikes a wonderful balance between being easy to read, yet weaving together several important themes.
Rowan Kelly grows up in a loving family which is not her own. Adopted from the crib, as a child she can’t understand why she doesn’t share her mother’s curly hair and blue eyes; why she and her brother are both different. She loves her mother but, as she goes through kindergarten and childhood, comes to understand that she has a different mother somewhere, a mother in Korea – her “BioMom”. This, however, is a subject that her present mother evades with tears.
Rowan contacts the adoption agency direction to find out that her biological mother dumped her, unwanted, at an orphanage. And her adoptive parents adopted her – in Rowan’s by now teenage view – as second-best because they couldn’t have children themselves. This turns to open hostility when Rowan compares herself with her also-adopted brother:
At two years old, I thought this was how babies were made. There was a mommy and daddy, and the airport was where children were kept. I didn’t know two people had to decide they wanted children – that they had to consider if they were ready for this. I didn’t know those same two people would attempt to create life with their own bodies and fail. I didn’t know this baby wasn’t my “real” brother.
Real or not, Aidan is the good son of the family, the one who always has the right answers, gets the good grades, and manages not to upset his parents. Rowan is the trouble-maker who tries to date a man older than she; who, on the night of her first school dance, with a broken doorbell:
My concern wasn’t so much needing to know when [my date] arrived, but was born out of a desperate need to prevent Mom from getting to him before I could. With the doorbell to warn me, I could clear the hallway, the stairs, and the living room by the time Mom had stopped whatever she was doing in the kitchen. If Mom got there first, though, who knew what embarrassing things she would say to him in the time it took me to run down the hallway, jump down the stairs, and across the fancy couches we weren’t allowed to put our feet on.
The date goes well, but Rowan comes back well after hours to a blazing row: her mom’s rules are there because Rowan is not her real daughter and, as a consequence, seeks to control every aspect of her life.
Things settle down. The rite of passage that is the prom comes and goes. Her date is another adopted Asian, but they have little in common and, anyway, college looms. Both mother and daughter are stressed, and the weeks pass in a series of fights. But Rowan is offered a scholarship at the college of her choice.
Once there, she befriends Erin, from whom she becomes inseparable – until Hunter steps in. Hunter is a beautiful man, but possessive to the point of obsession. His jealousy soon leads to violence, and, although Rowan forgives him – “the preservation of our love had driven him to violence” – the trajectory is set.
Coming into her second semester, she’s suspended from college for lack of attendance. She goes home only to run away to Hunter. She has no choice but to live as a thief in his dormitory room. The violence becomes regular but when, one day, she sneaks out and bumps into Erin, she rejects her offer of help and defends Hunter.
Nevertheless, Hunter introduces her to his family. Although slow to get started, the visit results in a friendship of sorts with his mother. She encourages Rowan to call her own mother – an innocent conversation that results in another beating, and Hunter insisting to Rowan that “`Your mother is a fucking crazy, controlling bitch.’”
Back on campus, after striking her yet again, he abandons her in their room and goes off to party. Rowan has had enough; she is ready to go. But he returns, drunk, rapes her and dumps her, still naked, on the streets. Rescued by a stranger, her mother comes to collect her, yet Rowan resists turning in Hunter. Instead, she submits to a routine and, as time passes, realises that BioMom is the problem.
Rowan gets the records from the adoption agency to find out that she
was collateral damage–clothes that haven’t made the cut into the carry-on, pictures and ticket stubs thrown into a trash can and left to burn. There was nothing wrong with me – I just wasn’t worth the trouble.
Putting Hunter behind her, she finds a job, completes her education and bumps into an old flame. At first happy, that old flames becomes part of the problem and pivots her into the abyss.
If Inconvenient Daughter sounds anything but delightful, I do not mean the word in the sense of a gift box of chocolates. What is delightful is the skill with which Lauren Sharkey exercises her craft. The novel is far more than a coming of age or rite of passage account. It weaves several threads: of being different, of being adopted, of self-esteem and faltered communications, into a tapestry that reveals the picture, not the stitching.
The violence and lack of self-esteem that drive the plot are signaled. Each chapter starts with a flash-forward to a pivotal moment in Rowan’s life. This is a neat plot device, a foreshadowing that reveals just enough, but not too much. And much of the writing is beautifully understated – “In the bathroom, directly opposite my bed, was my collection of nail polish. By this time, I probably had about fifty colours – I had even paid for some of them.” was one of my favourites, along with, when Rowan attends an all-girls Catholic school:
As we approached the double doors leading to the auditorium, my eyes met Sister Margaret Anne’s. I’d been in her office for smoking in the bathroom two weeks prior, and last month for forging Mom’s signature on a note Sister Joan sent home about my “attitude.”
The internal monologues pack an emotional punch, and the characters are people I feel I’ve met.
The result is a sophisticated, skilled and ultimately a very moving book. For any novelist, it would be an achievement. For a first novel, it is astonishing.
Rather to my surprise, I was given pride of place in the South China Morning Post’s letters section today: https://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/3077769/coronavirus-hong-kong-give-people-under-quarantine-chance-work-out.
Here’s the full thought:
I returned to Hong Kong a few days ago and have been in self-isolation since. It has not been a happy experience, but has given me time to think. And I wonder if there is a simple way of making self-isolation less harmful to those who undergo it.
Like many people, I find myself in two minds about the local and global response to coronavirus. On the one hand, there are 8 billion people on our planet of whom, at the time of writing, about 600,000 [now 750,000] have been infected. That’s an infection rate of 0.0075%. Of those infected, about 540,000 have made or will make full recoveries. My chances of dying from diarrhoea, malaria, dengue fever or a traffic accident are much higher – and most of those are, like covid19, somewhat avoidable dangers.
The underlying goal of public policy almost everywhere is to “flatten the curve.” The idea is not that we can prevent the disease from spreading, but that we can slow down its spread. This will buy time on three fronts:
1. In the short term, it will lower the chances that the public health services will become overwhelmed – treating 500 patients all at once on a single day is very different from treating 50 patients a day for ten days.
2. In the medium term, it buys the medical profession time to come up with more effective treatments based on existing drugs.
3. In the long term, given that it takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine and put it through clinical trials to prove it safe, flattening the curve may delay the full onslaught until a safe vaccine has been developed.
The worry is that the current media coverage is such that the concern on health services being overwhelmed is self-fulfilling. Because of the coverage, people are far more likely to check themselves into hospitals, and the hospitals will become overwhelmed far more quickly than they otherwise would do.
This worry doesn’t hold up to closer inspection, however. If covid19 were perceived as a worrying type of ordinary flu, many people who felt a sniffle and a fever coming on would stay at home, rest, glug water and Paracetamol, and get better without the public health services becoming any the wiser. Those who worsened would check themselves in, and the public health services would deal with them – perhaps in slightly increased numbers, but not so much as to overwhelm the system.
The trouble is, in Italy and Spain, this is precisely what did NOT happen. Those who worsened all checked in at the same time, and the system was overwhelmed. So flattening the curve is a short-term necessity.
I am not a medical professional, so won’t comment on this one.
There is a big difference between a vaccine and a safe vaccine. Although Thalidomide is not a vaccine, it remains to this day a cautionary tale of the dangers of rushing a new drug to market. Thalidomide was first released in the 1950s and was found to mitigate morning sickness – at a terrible cost. Foetal development was severely affected, with many babies born with malformed limbs.
As a result of Thalidomide, much more rigorous testing was mandated in all Western countries. All new drugs require extensive clinical trials. This tends to happen in two stages: the first stage is to prove the efficacy of the drug, and the second to prove it safe. The second requires finding a group of volunteers that is large enough to be representative of the target population – in the case of coronavirus, all 8+ billion of us. This is a lot of science, a lot of administration and a lot of money. Despite Trump’s brouhaha, the chances of getting a vaccine which is both effective and safe to market – not to mention producing it sufficient quantities to be useful – before the coronavirus has runs its course look vanishingly remote.
The Flip Side
So, let’s be clear. The primary problem we’re trying to avoid the is short-term problem of overwhelming the health services. This is not a nice-to-have; it is a necessity. But what I have not yet seen is a sober assessment of the price we pay to counter that threat.
The only approaches mooted are combinations of self-isolation and social distancing. Those come at a price.
I am in self-isolation. I have a 500 square foot apartment, which at least has a view, and a whole bunch of things that I never quite had time to do. My days are not dragging. But the effect on my physical health, even after four [now seven] days, is noticeable. I am not fitness fanatic, but I am fit: I walk every day, and often hike, swim or sail. The less fit I become, the more at risk I am of becoming infected, and the more risk I am of infection, the more potential I have to become part of the problem.
And I am lucky. I share this apartment with only my wife. I can only begin to imagine what it’s like for the 50% of Hong Kong’s population who live in 350 square foot apartments in public housing, which they share with families of four or five others – four or five others whom, by self-isolating together, are almost guaranteed to be infected if the self-isolator happens to be infected or a carrier. On top of that danger, those who, like me, are fit, will watch their fitness drain away; those who are not will go from being unfit to sick – and thus become part of the problem.
But physical fitness is only one side of it. There is a deep human need for physical contact, and a deep human need for physical interaction with others. I think just about everyone reading this will be seeing the same WhatsApp jokes, videos and the like, but this is a placebo rather than a cure for the extreme loneliness that is the result of self-isolation. It plugs the gap without filling the hole.
There is also a deep human need not to be trapped within four walls. There is a name for that kind of place: prison. Prison is not a reward; it is deprivation to inflict punishment. Its most extreme form, solitary confinement, is known to cause physical changes to the brain after a few months. Again, I am lucky (and in a sense unlucky because I can see what I’m missing): I have a flat with a view. Most in Hong Kong see the concrete wall of their neighbour’s house. But we are trapped.
The result is obvious: self-isolation and social distancing are going to cause mental health issues. The reason that visitors to prisons are extensively searched is not because of smuggling in files in cakes, but because of self-harm. I am not a public health expert, but I cannot see how this cocktail of self-isolation and social distancing can result in anything but widespread mental health issues. As with prisons, their most extreme manifestations will be self-harm and domestic violence. Again, this becomes part of the problem.
In summary, self-isolation and social distancing are going to cause physical and mental health illnesses that are going to put even more pressure on an already overloaded public health system. So, I end this with both a plea and a suggestion.
The plea is to be more selective about self-isolation. I won’t pretend to have the knowledge how to set about this, but if any place has the expertise and the money to be more scientific and selective in choosing those for self-isolation, it is Hong Kong.
The suggestion is exercise breaks. Nearly everyone in Hong Kong lives within walking distance of a public exercise area or park. Allocate one hour per day – I don’t care when – 2 a.m., 3 a.m. – for those who are in self-isolation. Clear the place fifteen minutes before we arrive, sanitise the place after we leave. Enforce social distancing – with security guards if you must – but allow us half an hour to one hour a day outside these four walls, to balance our physical and mental health.
It’s simple, cheap and easy to do. And it can only relieve the pressure on our heroes, our already overloaded medical staff.
The Natural World has to do with this post only in as much as it was human interaction with bats that started the novel coronavirus that sees me – and many others – in self-isolation for the next couple of weeks. This post is to serve two functions: first, a mental health check for me, and second, to let others know the challenges they’ll face should they be so stuck.
Day 0: Australia to Self-Isolation
Started out, still drunk, at 4 a.m. for a ride to Melbourne airport, a short flight to Sydney, the inevitable hanging around, and 9 hours home to Hong Kong (wearing a surgical mask). There were no air traffic delays (!) and the airport was nearly deserted, but a couple of flights must have landed at the same time as mine. Hong Kong, being part of the hi-tech Greater Bay Area (Silicon Valley done by geriatric technomorons), gave me two forms to fill out by hand. To maintain social distancing, we were given densely packed tables to stand at. It turned out that, in this day and age, one of the forms was to be filled out in duplicate. I was tagged with a wristband, asked to download an app – “Stay Home Safe” – and told to expect an SMS “soon” to activate the app as I may be fined if I can’t be tracked with the app.
Got home. Wife still at the office to finish off some stuff as she’s banned from work until my own self-isolation is over. On the basis that coronavirus does not like it hot, I had a blistering shower, and threw all dirty clothes into the machine for an equally scorching wash. Phoned the Stay Home Safe hotline and asked for the activation SMS. The lady said to get in touch if it hadn’t arrived by tomorrow. Wife came home, we had dinner, I read a book, crashed on the study floor to minimise the chances of infecting her.
Day 1: Catching Up
Established while sleeping that our floor is hard. Really hard. Even with an exercise matt and another matt beneath that. Breakfast was toast with a tomato, and tea. It had rained overnight so the clothes I’d hung out to dry needed to be rehung. I took a long, sad look outside (our flat looks out over playing fields and hills), and decided not to endanger others and cheat by sneaking out.
The SMS for my tracking app hadn’t arrived. Phoned the hotline and left a message, only it hung up before I could finish. This was the first of half a dozen unanswered calls – it turns out that I’m far from the only one in the same situation. Meanwhile, although the HK Government (HKG) can’t get its act together to make a basic tracking app work, it can devote expensive resources to arrest a lawmaker – at 1:30 a.m. – for sedition. (Yes, in 2020, sedition is still on Hong Kong’s books as a crime.)
It turned out to be a useful day to catch up on all the stuff I hadn’t been able to keep on top of while I was on holiday. I help out with two organisations – the HK Writers’ Circle and Freemasonry – and I’d fallen behind. Wife cooked lunch – kimchee and leek soup with dumplings – very tasty. The afternoon’s assignment was to sharpen the kitchen knives, presumably to make sure that, when I go stir-crazy, she has something to defend herself with.
I’m editing one of my novels, and was able to give it the attention it deserved: good.
Dinner was spinach, udon (a thick Japanese noodle) in soup, and soup with tofu and seaweed. I read for an hour or two, but am still on Eastern Australia time so hit the hard floor feeling vaguely satisfied that I’d got through the day without whimpering about not being able to go out. Fit people are less likely to need emergency treatment: I wondered why HKG can’t let us out for half an hour a day in the local park to let us keep physically and mentally fit. The most likely answer is that they haven’t thought of that; the second most likely is they don’t want us that way.
Sometime during the day, I realised that what matter is not how many days I’ve done, but how many I have to go. So the day numbering is a negative count-up from now on.
The floor is still hard. Breakfast was toast and a tomato, with a dash of olive oil and sea salt.
Today’s Big Task was to rehabilitate two razor handles. I purchased these in Indonesia a few years ago, along with about as many packets of razors as I could carry. Although the packets looked like five-packs from the outside, they turned out to contain two and only two razors per pack, so my hopes of a lifelong supply of the things were dashed. However, when I was there in early April, I sourced another few packets, so the razor handles had life in them yet. Half an hour in Dettol to clean them, and another hour in WD40, and their rehabilitation was complete.
The trouble with catching up on admin is that, once you’ve caught up, you’ve caught up. There were a couple of tail-end tasks, but nothing momentous, so I decided it was my turn to cook lunch: cherry tomato and Red Leicester salad: cut the tomatoes in half, sprinkle over salt, olive oil, balsamic (if it were me, I’d be happy with the cheap stuff – I’ve never understood the fetish for balsamic), and cheese. Didn’t quite work – needed mozzarella, or something else with more kick.
Main course: mother-in-law’s magic tomato gloop augmented with fresh tomatoes, sliced (but not chopped) onion, a local gourd not unlike a courgette, and lots of garlic. Stirred in spaghetti and parmesan: altogether pretty good.
Worked more on the novel. Remembered I’m supposed to be learning Bahasa Indonesian, so revised Chapter 1. Tried to read a book, but the internet at home browned out and I was delegated to phone the provider. I was all set to put it off as Tomorrow’s Big Task, but Wife gave me a look that made me wonder if she’d had me sharpen the knives for a specific reason. The hard part was finding the customer support phone number: by the time I’d done that, the internet was working again.
Wife cooked up a storm for dinner: a beetroot-like root that has no name in English, and a mushroom and tofu mixture. I realised I was so terrified of running out of material that I was rationing myself to a chapter here and a chapter there (I normally have four or five books on the go at any one time, but that’s ALL the books I have).
Day Minus Eleven
It sounds better if I spell it out. There’s an abstract aspect to digits.
The floor had not diminished in hardness this morning, but perhaps I had. It only took me an hour to stretch the stiffness out of my bones. I still haven’t adjusted to local time, so it was six-ish when I awoke, though eight-ish by the time I was up and about.
Breakfast. Same. Toast with tomatoes, enlivened – kind of – with olive oil and salt. There was almost no email – the norm for Saturdays – but what there was needed enough attention to fill an hour. The Big Task today was to clean the water filter, which I did. I wrote the post above, and decided it made more sense to write before bed, which I now am.
I had a decent run at the novel I’m working on, broke for lunch: vegetarian katsu (breaded pork chop) with scrambled egg on a bed of rice, with Japanese curry made from yesterday’s leftover vegetables. To my surprise, it all came together.
Today’s Big-To-Do-List item was to wash the windows – the better I can see that which I am denied – but it started raining, so it was back to the book, then to Indonesian. Wife made noodles and aubergine with fake pork and chili – excellent! – for dinner. Though in the almost complete absence of physical exercise, we’re both struggling to finish the food we cook for ourselves.
After dinner – brilliant! – I remembered a book I was supposed to review, so started on that.
I have noticed how much more time I spend on WhatsApp. I have even started following some of the links and watching some of the videos, both of which I normally skim or delete unseen. Part distraction, part desperation, but mostly the want of human contact. I don’t think I’m the only one – I heard from a friend in Oman who I last was in touch with about seven years ago – he was scraping his Rolodex, but it was good of him to think of me.
To sleep, perchance to dream.
Day Minus Ten
Either the floor is getting softer or my back is getting harder.
Breakfast: the usual. It was clean-the-house day, so I practised the skill I learnt in my first job and made myself useful by mopping the floor. Started on the book. At some point, I found myself bent forwards as an involuntary whine escaped me.
Our usual habit on Sunday mornings is to go to a local greasy spoon for breakfast. Wife cooked up something that was as good for lunch. I managed about another hour in front of the computer, then found myself pacing. I ended up circling the flat continuously for almost an hour, high-stepping and for a few circuits using books as weights for lifting. It wasn’t the same as a walk – didn’t come close – but pointed the way forwards for the next nine days.
Finished editing and read another stage of the book I’ve been given to review – the first Americans let into China, in 1971, since the revolution. It’s well-written and fun. I flicked through the final pages and saw photos of the China I remember from 1985. Wow.
Today’s to-do list was to re-arrange my books by category and alphabetically. I got the Tibetan section sorted. Philosophy or Greek tomorrow, depending on how things work out.
Wife cooked a lovely dinner. Read. Wasted time with Whatsapp – I’m not the only one struggling. Wrote this.
Looking down, I notice I found a set of guitar strings. Another thing on the to-do list! Whoopee!
Day Minus Nine
Whoopee! Into single digits.
Cold this morning. After squirming for a while trying to get back to sleep knowing it was too cold to do so, I found a fleece hanging on the door which did the trick. Breakfast was toast and tomato with tea. There was an email to answer, which was a pleasant surprise. I started drafting my thoughts on self-isolation, which morphed into an opinion piece for HK Free Press. They are taking a break upgrading their website, so rejected it. I cut it down to a letter for the opposition SCMP and, at last, it was down to editing the book.
Somehow the day was almost normal. I made lunch – kidney bean and cherry tomato salad with cheese on toast – and did more editing. Wife went out to buy some groceries, which gave me time to pace around the flat. Wife has some dumbbells – they’re not very heavy, but enough to burn some energy with various made-up movements as I paced.
I’d asked her to get some HK-style café builder’s tea while she was out. She added HK-style French toast, which was a pleasant treat. The next thing I knew, it was time to hit the to-do list: I sorted out the Philosophy section of my bookshelves. Dinner was pasta with pesto sauce and red peppers – yummy – then I cleared off WhatsApp – I’ve had it up to here with coronavirus jokes, so it didn’t take long. Read some books and wrote this. Getting there…
Day Minus Eight
Spent ages trying to get to sleep last night. The lack of exercise must be telling, so decided on a fasting day today.
It’s funny how the hours slip away. There was some admin to do this morning, I had a pitch deck to review – it was not great – and suddenly it was almost midday. A friend phoned, so we had a good chat. I read another chapter of the book I’ve reviewing. I’m at the read-it-out-loud stage with the book, so spoke myself hoarse for the next three hours. By then, Wife had a chocolate muffin in the oven – it turned out that she’d bought it and some cheesecake last night as a treat for me. The hell with fasting!
Spent two hours re-stacking books, and am much closer to some kind of order. Then it was the Last Tuesday Reading Group on the Writers’ Circle on Zoom, which went pretty well despite a few no-shows. The last two to join didn’t get much out of it, as all they did was read and then we packed up.
All in all, if it weren’t for the band on my wrist, I wouldn’t know I’m in self-isolation.
Day Minus Seven
Still on Australia time – there’s no reason to change – so was again up with the sparrows. A Whatsapp from another early bird complimented me on letter I wrote to the SCMP on Day Minus Nine. Not only had they published it, but they gave it the top spot on their letters page. I eagerly posted a link plus the rest of my opinion piece.
Breakfast – you guessed it. I then made lunch part 1: I butchered a pumpkin, basted it in olive oil, garlic and rosemary and roasted it. There were a few bits and pieces to catch up on, and some friends sent me some much better-informed-than average articles on coronavirus. Oddly, a couple of policemen turned up during this, to make sure I was observing the terms of my self-isolation. They seemed almost embarrassed to be here, and departed pretty quickly.
Lunch part 2 was Caesar salad to accompany the roast pumpkin. The trick is the sauce: lemon, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, pepper and, in the absence of anchovies for vegetarians like me, preserved tofu. Last time I tried it, I was too heavy-handed on the tofu; this time I got it about right.
After lunch I read myself hoarse, did some research for the blog or opinion piece I’ve started on, then it was business for a couple of hours. My to-do task is still restacking the books – which seems a reasonable substitute for real physical exercise. I’ve now just about completed reorganising my books into philosophy / fiction / language / etc, and have decided which ones to throw away, but am still unsure what to do with my Arabic and Farsi books. They’re expensive and difficult to find, but will I ever again visit that part of the world? Anyway, for tomorrow, I still have two sections to swap around and put in alphabetical order.
Dinner was simple but tasty: pak choi, some Taiwanese fake meat, and rice. I finished Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical book on Istanbul and tried some philosophy, but that got a bit heavy. So I wrote this. I think half an hour of Bahasa Indonesia
Day Minus Six
So busy it was almost a normal working day. Sorted a Cap Table for a company, made ginger and roasted pumpkin soup for lunch, managed a manic 15 minute pace by way of exercise, Wife cooked a weird but tasty vegetable for dinner, back to work, and now bed.
And the bloody government has shut all the pubs, so there’s bugger all to look forward to when I do get out.
Day Minus Five
And thus begins the most difficult part – the turn before the home straight. Breakfast was same as every other day above. I’d used up today’s quote of work last night, so fiddled with email and nothing very specific until – at 11 a.m. – I decided it was time to start lunch. I decided on Penne Arrabiata. As I’m vegetarian and don’t eat anchovies, I tried preserved tofu as a substitute. It worked rather well, augmented by a splash of blue cheese just before I stirred the penne into the sauce. Capers would have been a clever addition, though I suppose that would have made it a Putanesca instead.
I read chapters 9 and 10 of the book, one before and one after lunch, then decided it was time for the next big-ticket item on the to-do list: cleaning the windows. Wife had bought a contraption that kind of helped, so I spend an hour or so with that extendable squidgy pad, a bottle of window-cleaning fluid, and managed a credible job. We were both surprised at the result – we didn’t realise how dirty the windows had become.
I read some philosophy, Wife started cooking dinner just as CEO demanded a call. On due consideration, I told CEO to wait. Dinner was lovely – steamed aubergines, stir-fried vegetable, and rice cooked with a bright purple sweet potato. I was about to phone CEO when an old friend phoned from the U.K. It was good to catch up. Then CEO, then washing the dishes, and now this.
The government shut all the pubs today. It is a body blow that the one thing I’d really anticipated – a pint of draft beer in a pub after a hike – will now be denied to me. But… I have five days to go, and Hong Kong people will have found a way around the pub ban by then.
Day Minus Four
It was a bit of a blur. Breakfast – as usual. Read aloud and corrected another two chapters. A friend sent me something to edit, which I did. Lunch was – I’ve forgotten. Ah, yes, noodles, and a kind of vegetable which doesn’t have a name in English.
Hong Kong Review of Books wndered when I’d finish my review, so I pulled together a first draft. Then I went back to restacking the bookshelves: now as finished as they ever will be. I was vaguely thinking about making a quiche for dinner, but Wife got the drop on me and dinner was Japanese curry with soup – very yummy. Read a couple of books and a back copy of the New Yorker.
Started to make plans for when this is over, if I say symptom-free. It would be just the thing to do thirteen days of self-isolation and then come down with Covid-19.
Day Minus Three
Down ticks the clock. To the extent that it’s possible to do so on a roll-up bed on a hard floor, I had a lay-in. Breakfast was a kind of imitation of our usual Sunday morning at the local greasy spoon: noodles in soup with a fried egg. It was tasty and much appreciated, but not quite the real deal.
My to-do list is now exhausted but, being Sunday morning and as our usual Sunday morning helper is too terrified of coronavirus to venture from where she lives to our flat, we cleaned the place ourselves. My first job out of school involved mopping the floor of a large hotel kitchen, so our little flat is a cinch.
I read the last three chapters aloud and am somewhat pleased with the overall effect. I also finished the review of the book and dispatched that. Then it was lunch – food has taken a huge importance in this little journey – for which I warmed the pumpkin soup from a couple of days ago, and added some Welsh Rarebits (I have no idea why melted cheese on toast has that name).
That left the afternoon. I asked Wife to pop out for a coffee and cake, with which she returned. It got colder and colder, with rain outside and some wind to blow the chill inside. I finally started to read the HK Writers’ Circle collection that was published November last year – the circle has so much talent!
I decided to make chili con fake carne for dinner. I enjoy cooking this dish: it’s not difficult, but it does need some TLC to get right. After getting it to the point at which it goes on low heat, I finished the last of the books I have to read. I feel a review coming on.
The chili turned out quite tasty. The weather continues to get colder; I read another of the back-copies of The New Yorker a friend gave me. But that only gets me so far, and now I’ve come to write this. Time for bed.
Day Minus Two
It was bloody cold last night and this morning. I woke up late with one of my strange stress dreams about not being able to make it to the airport in time. Which is odd, as I have no flights planned.
Breakfast was rushed as Wife was about to start teaching on-line. I had some work to do, and then some minor tweaks on the book. That got me as far as lunch time, by which time Wife had decided that it was to be pasta and tomatoes. I did my best but, with cherry tomatoes, it was never going to be one of my best.
The afternoon didn’t quite drag, but nor did it fly by. More bits and pieces. An hour long pace of the flat as a poor substitute for exercise. Dinner was early and rewarmed the night before last’s Japanese curry. I started reading, decided to vent a letter to Cathay, who managed to dump a fair bit of misery on to me during March, and hid in the study to read a book while Wife was on the phone.
Twenty six and a half hours to go. At least I have a to-do task tomorrow. As I’ll be out for the first time in two weeks: the ironing.
The Last Day
Not there yet – it’s an hour and half before midnight.
Breakfast: same. Had a quick burst of work, but Wife had to deliver a lesson starting at 12:30, so I decided to make a quiche. I managed to make the pastry dough without getting the mixing bowl all sticky, which was a good omen. The rest of it’s pretty easy, though I fucked up and set the oven too low, so the quiche wasn’t baked quite in time. However, when it did come out, it was quite good.
Ended up reading, and making minor edits, to the book. I got through more than I’d intended, which I suppose is a good thing. The final task was the ironing – all done. I started drafting a story for the HKWC anthology. The first draft is due a week from now, and I am sooo far from it.
Dinner was basically all the left-overs in the fridge. Read the New Yorker. I can’t be bothered staying up, so will cut off my wristband tomorrow. Or perhaps during the night.
It isn’t over until it’s over, so my thoughts on Day Zero are the ones that will matter.
It started at 1:30 a.m. when I tried to cut off the identification band with the kitchen scissors. That didn’t work, so I went back to bed.
Breakfast was at the local greasy spoon: fried eggs with noodles in soup and builder’s tea. Just what I’d hankered after for days. I was bursting with pent-up energy and did several power circuits of the local park, then back home where the start of a story for the HKWC anthology seemed to have materialised. I got that down, ran some errands and Wife and I joined friends for lunch. From lunch to dinner with other friends, and home by eleven to an exhausted but – with a very over-full stomach – not very good sleep.
The park was where the reality hit me. It’s over. There were other people and they were doing normal stuff – exercise, sitting and chatting, walking, jogging, practising tai chi, dancing in formation, listening to radios, playing cards, playing with their children, smoking cigarettes, walking their dogs. Sure, the streets were much quieter and the park more busy than is normal, but it was still more or less normal. And, although it would be an exaggeration to say that the last two weeks just fell in on itself and vanished from my conscious memory, it suddenly seemed as if it had barely happened at all.
I am not as fit as I was, but I didn’t spend two weeks binge-watching porn and drinking the house dry; I finished some chores I’d put off and off, I made progress on my novel and various other things. And, although I personally think the entire coronavirus is hyped, I did my bit to keeping it under control. And now, after two weeks of cold rain and wind, the weather is stunning. Easter could be a very nice weekend.
A slew of Hong Kong novels has come my way recently. I’ll take them in chronological order of setting.
The World of Suzie Wong is a Hong Kong classic that leapt forth from a library shelf. The novel is a love story, but beautifully executed. Robert Lomax is an artist who checks into the Nam Kwok Hotel in Wanchai. The hotel is a brothel in all but name and, while Robert does not hire the prostitutes, he becomes friendly with them – and one, in particular, Suzie Wong. The characters of the girls and the moral norms of Hong Kong of the 1950s are sharply drawn, but the true strength of this book is Suzie’s own coming to terms with her past, with her feelings of inferiority both as a former prostitute, and later as a Chinese in Western society. By modern standards, the book is a little verbose and the internal monologues overblown, but it’s still a fine read.
The Road by Austin Coates was first published in 1959, and has been recently reprinted by HKU Press. The author was a district officer in the colonial government of the 1950s, and the other work of his I’ve been lucky enough to read is My Life as A Mandarin, an often hilarious, yet touching memoir. The Road is also set in the same era, but is a novel. Sylvia is a free-living novelist who marries a district officer in Hong Kong. Sylvia’s published novel is a fictionalised account of her passionate affair with an Indian in Tokyo: that she should cuckold her husband, be public about it, and with an Indian, sets her at odds with the village that is Hong Kong expat society of the time. Richard, her husband, is given the task of building a road to a remote part of Lantau, which sets him at odds with those who live there and don’t want the road, but there are rich and powerful people who see the road as an opportunity for self-enrichment. The story unfolds from numerous points of view, and some of the scenes are amongst the funniest I’ve ever read. A must-read before the current print run sells out.
Tiger Autumn by Jan Pearson is set in the tense atmosphere of China’s first nuclear test in 1964. The central part of the story concerns the escape of Dr Lin Dei from China, and his refuge in Hong Kong. He is assisted by Pearl Green, one of four society belles, and a cast of other characters, with layer upon layer of double-crossing and dirty dealing. Unlike Suzie Wong and The Road, there is too much action for this to be a portrait of its times – and too many anachronisms. We first meet Lin Dei wearing a T-shirt in 1964 in China, when everyone wore Mao suits, we seem to have IDD in an era when international phone calls, even for government officials, had to be booked weeks in advance. And the spy story sits rather awkwardly with the gossipy lives of the society belles. Nevertheless, the characters are well portrayed, and there is a fair bit of humour in the way the ladies in the book manipulate men who believe themselves to be in charge.
Jumping forwards three decades, the next was The Kowloon English Club by Stephen Griffiths. Joe Walsh heads east in 1996 and arrives in Hong Kong to meet up with his girlfriend – only to find he’s been jilted. Reluctant to return home, he finds a series of menial jobs before gaining employment in the Kowloon English Club. From this ensues a slow but growing entanglement with a cast of peculiar characters, and to some comic effect. Although set at the time of the Handover, this is barely a footnote to the plot – which is a missed opportunity. The novel has an autobiographical feel, which works well, and a quietly understated thread of humour runs through it. My only gripe is with the production – clunky font, typos, sentences that stop half way across the page only to pick up again on the next line – not the writing or plot: In this era of the self-published novel, these are easy to fix and, I hope, have been.
Hong Kong Rocks by Peter Humphreys, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle and – disclaimer! – a friend of mine, is much more action-packed volume. The book is well set-up, with the protagonist, Nick, describing his death. We then shift to the on-going lives of a group of friends, drunks to a man, and their reaction to Nick’s death. At times hilarious, the only problem I found was that, while the blurb emphasises that the book is set in an alternative Hong Kong reality (aren’t all novels set in alternative realities?), and although the Deportation Act which the characters both fear and are likely to become victims of, the alternative does strain the credibility in other ways. All the same, it was a fun read.
The last of the shelf was Bright Lights and White Nights by Andrew Carter, which brings us into this century. Troy, spurned by his girlfriend in England, arrives in Hong Kong, finds a job and tries to get his life up and running. He struggles to make friends, but does; the next step is to find a girlfriend. An old flame from home crosses his path and all seems to be going well, until it doesn’t in a very bad way. The next thing he knows, Troy is arrested, compelled into becoming a police informant, and is in over his head. I have to be honest: this book has great potential, but the current telling needs work.
So, a few for the bookshelf. It will be interesting to see what the last year’s protests inspire…