by Paul House
Dragon International Independent Arts
Review by Bill Kirton
It’s going to be difficult to avoid critical clichés here because Harbour really does take place at a pivotal moment in history and follow the broad sweep of cataclysmic events (see what I mean?). It conveys not just the facts of a specific era and location but also the moods which derive from and inform it. It’s a huge novel about war, culture, civilisations and yet at the same time, manages to be about the intricate daily lives of a handful of individuals, some of them representative of elements of the social, military and political context and yet still finely detailed characters in their own right with their own human stories.
The place is Hong Kong immediately before the start of World War II. The Japanese are prevailing in their war with China and their advance on the colony is as inexorable as the clichés I’m using to describe it. But the poise and rhythms of Paul House’s prose move between the various interested factions, characters and cultures in a calm, always focused manner, reflecting the coarseness of some, the elegance of others, and treating the impostors of joy, pain, sadness, disgust, horror, peace, cruelty, tenderness, gentleness, compassion and many others all the same. He conveys the corrosion of values, the mutual contempt between Japanese, Europeans and Chinese, the shifting of allegiances as the situation worsens, and he records without fuss or hyperbole the decline and death of colonialism.
On top of all that, in the foreground of the narrative he places a poignant, inter-racial love story, its consummation, inspirational highs and tragic lows. And its impossibility. Despite the major forces at work and the historical inevitability that we know will be the outcome of the Japanese advance, this intimate, personal story at its centre is a powerful, moving proof that all these things are not about abstractions, but about people.
The research behind the work is hugely impressive and yet it’s never intrusive. Everything is subordinated to the narrative. It may sound strange, tautologous even to say this but this narrative has the same quiet inevitability and sense of loss as the historical events which comprise it. Its pace is measured, carrying hints of menace but barely troubled until the invasion begins but then it quickens and the prose itself reflects the fragmentation of society as well as that of the individuals trapped within it. Relationships crumble through betrayals, people change sides and a way of life vanishes.
And yet, some of the individuals (or perhaps individuality itself) survive(s). As we get to know the characters, we feel their irritations, resentments, jealousies, contempts and all the other emotions that arise naturally from living in a protected, claustrophobic society. Some are destroyed but others live on, and I couldn’t help feeling that somehow these survivors simultaneously affirmed and yet hinted at the emptiness of human aspirations.
But this is all making the book sound like some academic history sprinkled with anecdotes and it’s far from that. It’s a great story, or rather a series of linked themes and stories, none separate from the others, all interpenetrating one another. We identify with people, share their hopes and despairs, care about them. We feel the heat, smell the spices and less savoury aromas of people and their activities, see the lights of the islands, feel the swaying of the sampans of the floating city and breathe air which is often thick with the sticky smell and taste of opium. We’re exposed to some stark images – personal and public – which linger and still disturb after the book has been closed. I don’t know how long it took Paul House to research and write Harbour but the result is a book of real substance which deserves a wide exposure.