A disclaimer: I know the author, Larry Feign, and have long admired his previous work. But I’m also delighted to say that I’d give this novel the same five stars even if I’d never heard of him.
Like the best historical fiction, this novel is authentic to the core. Set on the south coast of China where Hong Kong now is, but at the turn of the nineteenth century, decades before it became Hong Kong, this is the story of a brave and courageous, but also very angry lady. Sold into prostitution at an early age, Shek Yang is abducted during a pirate raid. Clever, ruthless and manipulative, the book charts her journey with the pirate fleet of Cheng Yat – who takes Shek Yang for his bride.
There is a dark sense of humour that runs through the story. It takes some time for Shek Yang to push Cheng Yat into a formal wedding ceremony and, when she does, he does it in style, with a huge wedding banquet. All does not go to plan:
Firecrackers exploded beside the ship. People screamed. A woman slipped off a platform onto other women below. This had not been part of rehearsals.
`Aiya! Too soon!’ Ah-Yi said.
Cheng Chat’s wife rose from her seat, her face burning like a lobster in a hot wok. She raised her skirts, tramped down to the gunwale, and shrieked over the side: ‘You dog-faced idiot spawn of turtle pricks! I’ll have your balls cut off and fed to crows just for that!’
I and the entire ship broke into hysterics. From that moment, I knew we’d be friends.
Piracy was not romanticised in Chinese literature (strangely, banditry was), and nor does this novel romaticise piracy. There is humour, but there is also cruelty and violence; both Cheng Yat and Shek Yang are part of it. It is never depicted gratuitously, but it is a constant undertone and one of the book’s strongest points is how Shek Yang’s attitude changes as she starts to face up to her own brutal past. When, during her pregnancy, she is confronted with a captured spy:
I’d witnessed the Ten Thousand Cuts years ago in a Kwangchow square and had joined in the hateful lust of the crowd watching a criminal be sliced apart piece by tiny piece. It was too late to back out. I had to take [Cheng Yat’s] dare.
The spy is tortured, bits cut off one at a time. Shek Yang threatens but does not participate in the violence. She flees:
Disgust washed over me, and at first, I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t the brutality of the Ten Thousand Cuts. I’d seen enough torment and dying among the pirates, sometimes for no other reason than to steal a little boat. I myself had taken a man’s life. Why should this execution bother me so?
Finally, I understood my disgust.
I’d have pried more information by simply having him alone in a room.”
Through these and similar incidents, Shek Yang starts to gain the respect of the pirates, and also of her husband. She is visionary, and leads the Cheng Yat, and the leaders of other pirate fleets, to a different way of conducting their affairs, a less precarious mode of existence. The latter part of the novel sees her rise in power – albeit with some very serious rivals.
The novel is scrupulous in sticking to the known facts. In less able hands, this would lead to a disguised history book. But, under the author’s hands, far from detracting from the dramatic tension of the plot, the novel’s historical fidelity adds to it. We know from Four Finger Wu in the opening pages of James Clavell’s Noble House that that novel is set in a romanticised version of Hong Kong, and are prepared to be entertained rather than informed. In a contrasting vein, we know from the opening pages of The Flower Boat Girl that it’s going to be gritty detail from cover to cover. The history never intrudes, but the solid factual basis of the novel, combined with a myriad of small observations, gives it a fabric and texture that kept me turning the pages until the back cover.
There is, according to Larry, the possibility of a follow-up novel. I’ll be eager to read it. As to this one, it’s on my shelf for a re-read.