A quick rundown… Stevie, a young American journalist in Hong Kong, becomes trapped when the Japanese invade during World War II.
Strengths: Very exciting page turner and it’s not conventional in its story telling.
Weaknesses: I felt like I was jumping in at the deep end at the start – who are these people?
Why I read it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury ANZ – thank you!
Setting: Hong Kong and America
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
When I first began to read The Harbour, I felt worried. That kind of worried feeling when you realise that you’re at a party and you know absolutely no-one. This book doesn’t muck around – it’s straight into the action. Stevie, the protagonist, is whisked away from a day at Happy Valley racecourse by her Chinese husband Jishang to meet a Chinese matriarch. Why does Stevie want to meet Madame Kung? Why is she in Hong Kong if she loves Shanghai so much?
Patience does pay off though and soon we learn that Stevie is a journalist, hankering to write deeper articles than a day at the races. With Jishang, she runs a political magazine. The more I learned about Stevie, the more I grew to admire her feistiness and her determination. She’s not a conventional heroine – she likes the opium pipe a little too much, but who can resist a girl who keeps a monkey as a pet because it came with the apartment?
Brill is brilliant (pun intended) at creating a spectacular, highly emotional story that twists at unconventional places. When Stevie meets Major Harry Field, it’s lust at first sight, despite his lonely marriage (and her one of convenience). They fall in love quickly, and Stevie is pregnant before we’re even halfway through the book. I admire Brill for having the guts to add a baby (Hal) to the remainder of the narrative. Likewise, the book doesn’t stop abruptly at the end of World War II but continues through the immediate post-war period. The Harbour is also interesting in that it doesn’t dwell on the atrocities occurring in Hong Kong at the time (though it certainly does portray them realistically and horrifically) but carries the strong theme of enduring love throughout.
The Harbour also contains great characters besides the charming but flawed Stevie – my favourite was Lilly, a cousin of Jishang, who is determined to make Stevie into a responsible being through shouting and screaming. Eventually the pair end up the best of friends. Harry is swoon-worthy (sorry Stevie), as he possesses a clever head on his shoulders, as well as an inside understanding of the Japanese. Declan, Stevie’s Irish journalist friend, is charming and turns up at just the right moments.
Brill’s use of language evokes rich scenes in my mind of the horror of Hong Kong after the invasion – Stevie’s desperation to buy powdered milk, others pawing through the rubble of apartment blocks to find loved ones all make me glad that (hopefully) that’s something I won’t have to experience. There were several nights where I thought to myself ‘just one more chapter’ and ended up reading well into the night.
A story of passion, emotion, survival and above all love, The Harbour was a fantastic debut. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what Francesca Brill has in store next.