I don’t typically read new releases, but the past few years seem to have been very good years in terms of the quality of books released so I will hopefully be going through a lot of them in the next year or two and share my thoughts on them.
An aside about book ratings on goodreads: I have noticed that the more outright intellectual ****a book is or tries to be, the worse the rating on goodreads tends to be. I guess most people like to hate on pseudo-intellectual type writers? This book seems to be one of these and I’m a little bit confused at the abysmally low rating. It’s a well-written book with sharp, witty commentary on relationships, money, class, race, imperialism and globalization. Certainly not a 3.32 star average, especially when many inferior books have 4+ star average ratings. Upon further inspection, it seems that the low average ratings are mostly due to (1) yes, people perceive the book to be pretentious/pseudo-intellectual and that (2) people think it’s racist. I personally find the book to be neither pretentious nor racist and am glad I didn’t let the low average ratings deter me from picking up the book.
I really liked the book’s first person narrative / writing style through which the main character Ava makes witty observations of society, relationships, the 21st century, Hong Kong and everything in between. A consequence of the writing style is that little bit of uncertainty regarding whether everything she says is reliable because we are seeing everything from her perspective. Below are some examples to illustrate what I mean:
“Banking slowed down just before Christmas. I suspected Julian told me that with disapproval. His MD had darkly intimated he’d be pleased with his bonus, which meant top tier or none at all. ‘Hengeveld’s a sadistic American cunt,’ Julian said, ‘so quite possibly the latter. He made no financial plans that relied on the money, then found himself perplexed what to do with it. I said that must be hard for him. ‘What’s “American” doing in that sentence, by the way?’ I said. Julian took off his suit jacket and placed first it and then himself on the couch, like: pray, elaborate. I said: ‘You seem more resentful when your superiors are American.’ Julian explained there was an important difference. When an American MD wanted something on their desk tomorrow morning, they said they wanted it on their desk tomorrow morning. When a British one did, they said it wasn’t urgent; tomorrow morning”
“It was October 1, National Day. Julian and I offered to spend it with Miles, but he laughed and said he had other plans already. Edith suggested we see the fireworks at Victoria Harbour. I wasn’t sure what she was up to asking Julian along, too, but didn’t probe her on it. He agreed to come. Walking through the crowd, I thought of the conclusions people could draw from seeing us. A tall, fair man and two small, dark-haired women. Two whites, one Asian. We couldn’t be related, but we were too different to be an obvious friend circle. Edith’s clothes looked the most expensive, so perhaps we were her harried personal assistants. But why were we spending National Day together? Possibly Julian and I were Edith’s friends from uni and had flown over from London for the week. We’d all gone to the same Oxford college, and Julian and I were married and visiting Edith following her return to Hong Kong..”
“Cynthia Mak asked what to say for ‘people’. Did it mean ‘sister’, ‘brother’, ‘father, or ‘teacher’, ‘doctor’, ‘artist’, or –
“They’re all okay,’ I said.
‘But if I put “sister”, “father”, “brother” in “people”, then what about here?’ She pointed to the box marked ‘family’.
‘Okay, don’t do those. Do “teacher” or something.’
‘But what about here?’- signalling the ‘professions’ row.
‘Okay, something else for “people”.”
‘Happy people, sad people?’
“Happy people” isn’t an exact noun – it’s an adjective plus a category noun.’
‘So what should I write?’
We looked at each other. It was indeed a challenge to describe people in a way not immediately related to how they earned money or their position in the family unit. I said: ‘How about friend, boyfriend, colleague?’
‘I don’t want to write “boyfriend”. I couldn’t blame her for questioning the exercise.”
“The third week of October, Edith said we should do something socially productive. Julian brought the plastic bags. We walked along the beach and picked up rubbish. Julian complained that there was no point because if we came back tomorrow, people would have dumped more packaging on the shore. Edith asked if he’d heard the parable about the man flinging starfish into the sea. Julian said yes, and that he thought it was nonsense because the man should have tried to get to the root of the starfish crisis instead of sticking plasters on it. She asked if he meant by seizing the means of production, and his face said: why is it that everyone I know is a white-collar drone, a deranged Bolshevik or in this case both.
We kept going till the shore was litter-free, then tied the bags and disposed of them. Julian said the recycling bins were just for show and it would all go to landfill, where it would probably do more damage than if we’d left it on the sand. “
There are many, many more witty dialogues throughout the book which I loved and made the book feel very “current”. The character development felt a bit lacking but in this context I wasn’t too bothered by it because (1) it was quite a short book, (2) that’s not the main focus of the book.
Buy your copy here; or listen to it on audiobook! This is one of those books that’s actually amazin on audiobook (not boring AT ALL) which is partly thanks to the writing style and the wonderful narrator.
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