This is a review of the novel The Harbour, by Francesca Brill. Set in Hong Kong during the Second World War, it follows the story of Stevie Steiber, an American journalist, and her illicit affair with British Major Harry Field.
The tale is an intriguing one. With a backdrop of impending war in a colonial outpost foolishly clinging to the belief it is untouchable, we see the frustration of a woman wanting to write something substantial and worthwhile, but forced by circumstance to deliberate on the frivolous antics of the British ruling class. You know, what sort of frocks are being worn to the races, that sort of thing. She is trying to convince some of the area’s most powerful Chinese women to allow her to tell their story, but always there is something in the background that seems to be going against her.
Add to this her quite frankly odd relationship with her editor (they got married to give her Chinese papers, yet he is already married and his wife is quite fine with the affair) and her fateful encounter with Harry Field and you have a fascinating and potentially explosive mix. That said, however, I didn’t really feel it lived up to its potential. Perhaps it was the head-hopping – I have difficulty with more than one or two POVs being shown per scene, and sometimes in this there were five. I understand that Francesca Brill has a background in writing screenplays, which is where this tendency probably comes from, but that doesn’t make it any less dizzying for the reader.I felt that perhaps more effort should have been put into external narration in these cases, as it is perfectly possible to demonstrate what a character is feeling or thinking by describing their actions, and it leads to less of a mosaic of points of view.
The other thing that may have stopped this story from fulfilling its potential is the scant attention paid to the feelings of the main protagonists. This is supposed to be a love affair that transcended everything, breaking up marriages, leading to social ostracism a la Anna Karenina, yet I didn’t really feel it. There was a lot of attention paid to what these people did, but comparatively little on how they felt and how that impacted on their decisions. In other words, the longing that they were supposed to be experiencing just didn’t jump off the page for me. For a book whose cover boasts the quote, “We need more love stories like this,” it was distinctly underwhelming.
Despite these shortcomings, it was a well written book and the story it told was indeed fascinating. As a debut novel it shows a lot of promise, and the characterisation of Stevie in particular was outstanding. I particularly liked her responses to questions about her personal life once the war had finished and how people tried to cope with her decisions I also liked the depiction of Harry in the POW camp and how he came to do some of the things he did. The truth is that people’s actions, particularly in wartime, are very rarely black and white, and the shades of grey shown in this novel demonstrate that brilliantly.
All in all, I enjoyed The Harbour. While some aspects of it did disappoint me, it does give an outstanding depiction of life in Hong Kong in the 1940s and the challenges and troubles faced by its inhabitants, and as I said the characterisation was indeed excellent. For a good historical novel about the war in Hong Kong, it’s well worth picking up.