Hong Kong, 1940. This lyrical debut novel follows British bride Elsa, her husband Tommy Jones, and daughter Mari, as war engulfs the island. Their absorbing, poignant story is told from the perspectives of Elsa and Tommy, their amah Lin, and finally Mari as she returns to the Welsh seaside home she has never known.
Gosodir y nofel delynegol hon yn Hong Kong yn 1940 gan bortreadu galar a hiraeth un teulu ifanc, Elsa a Tommy Jones, eu merch Mari a'u 'amah' Tsieineaidd Lin, wrth i ryfel amlyncu'r ynys. Adroddir y stori gyfareddol o safbwynt y pedwar cymeriad yn eu tro, gan gloi gyda dychweliad Mari i arfordir Cymru am y tro cyntaf.
I read The Rice Paper Diaries in a twenty-four-hour marathon and I would describe it as solidly good literature scaffolded onto a plot of graceful momentum. The story is divided into four sections (each focusing on the perspective of one of the four main characters: Elsa, Lin, Mari and Tommy) and recounts, chronologically, the characters’ experiences throughout the Second World War. Despite the familiarity of the genre, Rhydderch finds new ground, using Hong Kong and the west coast of Wales as the stages for her story. The exoticism of the former is naturalised by the initial emphasis on domestic drama in the colony. The newly married Welsh couple, Tommy and Elsa, are posted to a territory dominated by European bureaucracy but characterised by candlenut trees, junks and bamboo. The novelty of such a place (to me) is an inducement to continue reading in itself. Rhydderch’s prose is sophisticated and graceful too: ‘I arrived in Hong Kong at daybreak. I stood on deck and watched the sun split over the harbour, spilling light like a silkworm pushing its way out of a cocoon.’
The aforementioned domesticity is quietly discordant. Rhydderch introduces us to Elsa in the throes of giving birth to a stillborn son. This section of the novel is genuinely affecting. ‘He’d looked tiny, and agitated, as if he’d been crying for a long time but no one had come to him. His fists were tightly curled together. She’d reached out and put her hand on his cheek. It was still warm; white mucus covered his features in a sticky web. His eyes were shut.’
The more Elsa feels compelled by her husband to ‘move on’, the more the newly-weds drift apart, divided by their different expressions of grief. The foil of a wealthy British society transposed to a semi-Chinese culture is a perfect backdrop for the emotional lockdown that surrounds Elsa after the tragedy. In the company of muted servants and a superficial social group, Elsa becomes detached and isolated.
When the Japanese invade and the focus of the book broadens, the author expertly manages the micro and the macro of the plot with the truthfulness noted by Tessa Hadley on the book’s cover. This is no surprise to anybody familiar with the source material that inspired the book – the war-time experiences of Rhydderch’s great-aunt, Menna Wilders. The daily lives and the coping strategies of the British captured and imprisoned in a POW camp are detailed: at times violent, at times menacing, at times muted. But always believable.
The novel draws to a close, cyclically, with Elsa and Tommy returning to a sleepy Welsh coastal village. Now with a young daughter, Mari, in tow, they attempt to recalibrate themselves to the rhythms and pulses of local politics and a smaller way of life. Again, this is drawn brilliantly: ‘Nannon measures Elsa’s chest, her fingers knocking against her hollow ribcage. She holds the tape loosely so it won’t press into Elsa’s skin, as if she’s afraid it will leave a mark. She tots up the inches from the nape of Elsa’s neck to just under her knee, while Mari counts the bones that stick out all over, like the stringers of a half-built hull.’
Overall, this is a tender and intensely visual read and a sure-fire nominee (I’d put money on it) for next year’s Wales Book of the Year.
Jemma L. King
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Fancesca Rhydderch has a degree in Modern Languages from Newnham College, Cambridge, and a PhD from Aberystwyth University. A former editor of New Welsh Review, her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies and broadcast on Radio 4 and Radio Wales. This is her first novel.
a "Poignant and accomplished first novel" – Stevie Davies Planet Magazine This is a story of war told from the edges. Four interweaving accounts relate the intimate havoc wrought by military conflict on individual lives.
It is spring 1940, and newly wed Elsa Jones is finding her way in Hong Kong’s ex-pat society. Lonely and homesick, she finds an ally in her amah Lin, who has travelled downriver from her native village in Canton, but their friendship is clouded by Lin’s own longing to be reunited with her young sister and the simpler life of her childhood. Hong Kong is changing by the day: soldiers appear on the streets and bomb shelters spring up around them, but, taken up by their own concerns, both Elsa and Lin fail to notice the darkening of the political landscape.
When Hong Kong falls to the Japanese, Elsa and her husband Tommy are captured and interned in a makeshift camp on the southern side of the island. Along with the rest of Hong Kong’s European elite, they have to knuckle down to the task of survival in hostile surroundings. As the internees settle into some kind of community on a rocky peninsula facing the South China Sea, Elsa and Tommy find their relationship tested to the limit. Ever optimistic, Tommy come up with a plan to make the camp self-sufficient, but as the mental pressure of internment grows his personal crusade develops into an obsession so deep and dark that it becomes a prison of its own.
The final war story in this lyrical novel is the poignant tale of baby Mari. When we rejoin her in 1947 she is six years old, on her way home from the Far East to a village on the coast of Wales. Everyone tells her there is much to celebrate, not least victory and a return to the securities of the past. But for Mari camp life is all she has known. Her new home is a cold, strange place riddled with secrets which can only be decoded by eavesdropping on the broken, confusing exchanges between the adults around her. As we follow her desperate attempts to create a happy ending, we learn more about the tragedies as well as the joys of coming home.