I think I need to start off this review by saying that this novel is quite different from the other books I’ve read by Bryce Courtenay (I haven’t read all of them though). He is most well-known for his Australian historical books (such as The Story of Danny Dunn, The Potato Factory) but this book is a departure from those.
Why? For starters, this book is set in the 1960s and very little of the action takes place in Australia. The majority is set in Singapore, just after Lee Kuan Yew came to power with the PAP. The protagonist, Simon Koo is an Australian born Chinese (his family arrived during the gold rush in the 1850s) and he is the most Chinese looking of all of his family (in fact, he is often referred to as looking like a ‘Chinese peasant’ – well-built and not the prettiest). He speaks little Cantonese and although he harbours dreams of becoming an artist, he works in advertising.
Sent to Singapore as creative director of a new multinational advertising company, Simon finds his path is fraught with obstacles. He needs to learn the Chinese idea of ‘face’, battle his bosses and try to support his alcoholic half-day colleague, Dansford Drocker. There’s a little of the Mad Men touch here as advertising campaigns are explained. Fortunately, Simon has a friend and eventually lover in Mercy B. Lord but there are problems in that area too. Where does Mercy B. Lord disappear to on Thursdays? Why is she so secretive?
There’s a lot of interesting snippets too about the reform of Singapore as well as Chinese-Australian history. You don’t see a lot of the Singapore that exists today apart from The Raffles and Goodwood Park Hotel (which I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet been into). The characters are fantastic too, from Molly Ong (former Miss Singapore) to Dansford and his wife, Chicken Wing and Willy Wonka. There’s also a character called Louie da Fly, a reference to Mortein’s own advertising campaign for Louie the Fly which Bryce Courtenay wrote himself.
The ending of this book was fantastic – didn’t see that one coming! I read this quickly, it’s a book to be devoured in big chunks. As a Singapore lover, I enjoyed the references to the hotels, humidity and food. I’ll definitely be looking for the ghosts of Dansford at the Goodwood!
I’d be interested to know if this book will be published in Singapore and what Singaporeans think of it.
Read it if: you’re interested in advertising, Singapore or just want a good read.
9.5 out of 10.