Sun, Sep 18, 2005 - Page 18 News List

A ride through the turmoil of 1920s China

`The Emperor's Bones' is a swashbuckling novel with the right ingredients for a riveting read, and a movie too


The Emperor's Bones
By Adam Williams
669 pages
Hodder and Stoughton

It's only recently that the world has begun to perceive the 1920s in China as having been a fascinating period. That it was a time of dissension and competing ideologies, not to mention warring factions, has long been understood. But now it is becoming clear that it was also a time of a considerable internationalism among the educated classes, as well as an era when significant numbers of the more adventurous from Europe and elsewhere opted to go there and see what the other side of the planet was like.

It's in 1920s China that Adam Williams sets his second blockbusting historical adventure. His first, The Palace of Heavenly Pleasures, reviewed in the Taipei Times on Jan. 11, 2004, dealt with events surrounding the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It's now a generation later, and several of the off-spring of the characters from the first book now take center-stage, notably the Airton family.

This time, however, Williams offers us a heroine of at least nominal complexity. Her name is Catherine Cabot, and he gives her elements of the life-story, although not the personality, of his own grandmother ("she never behaved as badly as my Catherine"). He presents her as both a compassionate nurse in World War I, and an independently-minded woman who has sex with her fiancee's brother a few nights before her wedding.

Great novels are supposed to be characterized by their characters' complexity as well as their variety. This is not a "great novel" in the way War and Peace is. It is, instead, a red-blooded, vigorous, easy-to-read adventure story based on a large amount of historical knowledge. And, being an intelligent man, Adam Williams is not averse to taking a leaf out of greater writers' books. This seems to me a virtue, and this long story benefits from, among other things, the unpredictability of Catherine's behavior.

Then there is Yu Fu-kuei, a young Chinese woman with Communist sympathies. Despite a stint studying at Oxford, where she is punted down the River Cherwell as she reads the poetry of Andrew Marvell, she retains her radical beliefs. The university's quasi-orthodoxy that there's something to be said on every side of almost every question fails to deter her, though later events back home in China prove another matter.

There are grotesquely horrific scenes, with atrocities perpetrated by all sides. On one occasion Catherine and Fu-kuei are captured and brought before a night-time kangaroo court presided over by the son of a Shanghai tycoon. Students suspected of being Communists are flung alive, after "court hearings" lasting seconds, into a furnace, and the two women only escape at dawn by a slightly contrived last-moment intervention. (It seems acceptable to give away this plot twist here because there are innumerable others waiting to surprise and amaze the reader).

The author comments in an afterword that, "writers of fiction rapidly realize that it is difficult to invent stranger things than actually happened," and as a result many of the characters here are based on real-life historical models. Williams's fictional journalist Willie Lampsett, for instance, is based on a Danish original, A. Krarup Neilsen. But many historical figures appear in their own right -- Mikhail Borodin, Soviet adviser to the Kuomintang and a leading influence on the Chinese Communist Party, Chang Tso-lin, warlord of Manchuria, "tiger of the north" and conservative opponent of Chiang Kai-shek, and Colonel Doihara Kenji, celebrated at the time, possibly with a shiver of irony, as "the Japanese T.E. Lawrence".

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