My Splendid Concubine Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODRAM
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In 1854, a British customs official named Robert Hart travels to China to take on a new position. Intrigued by his early experiences with the Chinese culture, Hart meets Sir John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong, who advises him to study everything around him and to learn something new everyday. The young man takes this advice to heart, even though he soon discovers that the rest of the Westerners in the consular office view the Chinese culture with disdain and superiority. His first employer, for example, chastises him for trying to learn Mandarin, saying, “It is their place to understand us. We don’t have to understand them.”
Hart soon discovers that while the British officials dismiss the Chinese as superstitious heathens, there is one part of the Chinese culture they are quick to appreciate: the taking of concubines. This is only one hypocrisy among many he observes, and Hart notes that, “on one hand the Europeans and British are shoving Christianity’s message of brotherly love down the Chinese collective throat with the barrel of a rifle. At the same time foreign merchants, mostly British, are selling opium to the populace.” Hart hopes to rise above such behavior but finds himself sorely tempted by repeated opportunities to indulge himself with Chinese concubines. Young Hart fights his own natural tendencies, struggling to maintain the ethical high ground.
Then he meets Ayaou, a fiery and courageous girl from the lowest sector of Chinese society, the boat people. Their startling and memorable introduction during a violent local revolt sparks a passion that takes the young Englishman by storm. Willing to bankrupt himself if necessary, Hart attempts to buy Ayaou from her father, (who is selling her to provide for the rest of his family), but circumstances whisk her away. Before he can regain control of the situation, Hart is compelled to buy Ayaou’s younger sister, rather than let the girl fall into unsavory hands. Ashamed and embarrassed, Hart is caught between his own Christian beliefs and the worshipful, persistent attention of his new young concubine. Meanwhile, he is desperate to locate Ayaou, who was sold to the violent and unstable American mercenary soldier Frederick Townsend Ward.
Lloyd Lofthouse has created a rich cast of characters against the exotic and fascinating backdrop of nineteenth century China. Young Robert Hart is a sympathetic character who earnestly seeks to balance his Christian beliefs with his growing love of the Chinese culture. As Hart learns, so does the reader, for the author has skillfully woven lessons of the Chinese culture into the plot and setting. The girls, Ayaou and Shao-mei, are individually defined as characters and truly believable as sisters. They are both sensually mature and playfully young. In one scene they squabble with jealousy, and in the next they present a united sisterly front against the poor, confused British man who loves them both. As for the world beyond this love triangle, author Lofthouse has populated Hart’s corner of China with pirates, dangerous mercenaries, opium dealers, and one philosophizing eunuch servant. My Splendid Concubine is a stunning debut for this historical novelist, who spent years in China researching the life of the real Robert Hart before fleshing him out into a character who will connect across the centuries to today’s reader of historical fiction.