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Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brill

 Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brill

Harry says shes awfully intelligent.

Its a comment thats dripping with contempt. The unnamed she of the sentence is Stevie Steiber, a forthright, forward woman who is not known for endearing herself to others by toeing the lines of propriety and mid-century gender roles. An American female journalist in 1940s Hong Kong, shes all too aware of the forces of tradition and the boundaries placed on the feminine, and makes it her mission to subvert and surpass expectations wherever possible.

Shes an explorative, participative type whose determined, deliberate emancipation is often curiously and inexplicably motivated, and its easy to see why she arouses such misgivings in those around her. Shes transgressing cultural boundaries, gender boundaries and moral ones, and apparently without any of the sense of guilt that should at the very least accompany such things. Theres a sense of hedonism and unfetteredness about her behaviour: in far off Hong Kong shes not subject to the crippling oppression of her puritanical family. In Hong Kong she not only begins to find herself professionally, but also as a woman: she becomes a lepidopterist of compliments in this in between place.

She takes a loverand indeed a husband, although were led to believe this is at least to some degree for conveniences sakein Jishang, a man she fetishises for being exotic and therefore forbidden. Jishangs otherness was a source of complete wonder to hereverything about him seemed miraculous because it was so unfamiliar, we hear. For Stevie, Jishang represents not so much love as he does a human manifestation of the rebellion in which Stevie delights. Stevie takes some sort of relief from the fact that Jishang is already married with a family, as this precludes her from having to concern herself with anything resembling a true partnership.

This removedness, along with Stevies painful lack of cultural awareness (and arrogance in the same), is evident when she visits Jishangs wife: She never completely understood the apparent pragmatism that Wu Mei had applied to her husbands extra-marital interests but she was grateful that Jishangs wife had accepted her presence in her familys life with such singular serenity. Its a painfully deliberate self-deception, and the reader cant help but cringe at it.

In a way Stevie sees her relationship with Jishang as social proof, as a way of slotting in tidily into life in Hong Kong. When she is finally granted an interview with the elusive socialite Madame Kung, she missteps precisely because of this:

You need to be patient if youre going to write the truth (Madame Kung)

Stevies voice was thin and tentative. Ive been living with Chinese people long enough to

Madame Kung interrupted, eyebrows raised. So I hear.

Its little surprise, then, when Stevies interest turns away from Jishang and towards the more familiar Major Harry Field. Its another forbidden relationship, one that should be curtailed by Harrys marriage, but its this that both draws Stevie in and also grants her a modicum of safety. Harry, after all, belongs to another, and can therefore be nothing more than a temporary respite from loneliness. Yet Harry is unhappy in his marriage, and in his honest, heart-felt advances, arouses in Stevie her life-long fear of being pinned down by domestic tradition: God, whats happened to us, she says to Harry. We used to have such a good time.

And indeed, things do catch up with Stevie, and all at once. She finds herself pregnant, torn between two lovers, and in the midst of the pressing Japanese invasion. Her description of her pregnancy can be extrapolated to cover her other experiences during this time: a betrayal of both body and circumstances. It was her own body that was betraying her. It was engaged on an adventure that didnt concern her and which bypassed her own needs without consultation. She felt utterly alienated from it.

The Harbour is a novel in three parts, and unfortunately as a whole its weaker than these segments separately might suggest: its a little bit too much, sort of like attempting an entire grapefruit rather than a few modest portions. The first third is the strongest of the three, delving as it does into Stevies contradictory, irreverent ways and her uncomfortable dalliances and relationships. We get a strong sense of her own deep ambivalence of self, and of her desperate need to continue putting forth an identity that seems to sit uncomfortably on her own shoulders. This section resonated quite strongly with me, and I identified with Stevie to a surprising degree. Its after Stevies meeting with Harry that things begin to unravel slightly, however. Their sudden passionate affair is almost baffling to behold, and its surprising just how quickly Jishang, not to mention the business Stevie runs with him, fades into the background.

The second and third sections of the book cover the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and the post-invasion period respectively, and the focus of the book necessarily shifts accordingly. However, it just doesnt quite feel as though the story were following is capable of sustaining this shift in focus, and as the book progresses, it begins to collapse under the extent of its own narrative. Plot threads and characters seem to be dropped, only to be picked up again later on in a way that seems almost unfeasiblethe sudden publication of the book that Stevie was writing, for example.

There are times where the writing quality seems to ebb away, and certain stylistic quirks begin to appear with striking rapidity. The end of each scene, for example, is marked with a descriptive observation designed to be at odds with the sentiment of the scene. For example, when one character is shot, we hear: The sky was alive with stars. It was beautiful. Unfortunately the strength of this device is diminished by its overuse. The switching of points of view mid-scene works in some points, but not in others: the book seems uncertain whether it wishes to extend its scope to an omniscient narrator, or a close third. My copy of the book also suffered from a surprising number of typos and strange comma splices, which was a little disappointing.

Still, although I was a little underwhelmed with how the second half of the book played out, theres some strong material here, and I appreciated the beguiling, challenging, bewitching character of Stevieshes an admirably conflicted and complex lead.

Rating: star Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brillstar Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brillstar Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brillblankstar Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brillblankstar Book Review: The Harbour by Francesca Brill (good)

With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for the review copy

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  1. I have this to read so its nice to know the main character is strong and interesting
    shelleyrae @ Bookd Out recently posted..Review: The Convent by Maureen McCarthy

    • Stephanie /

      I think shes a bit of a divisive character, to be honestshes probably one youll either love or hate! Shes certainly selfish, and definitely makes all manner of assumptions about the culture shes moved into, but honestly, most of us are like that in a way.

      I hope you enjoy it. :)

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