"In 2016, Patricia Findlay leaves a high-powered career to move to Hong Kong, where she hopes to rekindle the bonds of family and embrace the city of her ancestors. Instead, she is overwhelmed by feelings of displacement and depression. To make matters worse, her father, CEO of the family bank, insists that Patricia’s duty is to produce an heir, even though she has suffered three miscarriages.
In 1912, when Isabel Taylor moves to Hong Kong with her husband, Henry, and their young daughter, she struggles to find her place in such a different world and to meet the demands of being the admiral’s wife. At a reception hosted by the governor of Hong Kong, she meets Li Tao-Kai, an influential member of the Chinese community and a man she met a decade earlier when he was a student at Cambridge.
As the story unfolds, each woman must consider where her loyalties lie and what she is prepared to risk for love."
I confess to not being much of a fan of "parallel timeline" historical novels, but now and again I stumble upon an author who masters this subgenre. M.K. Tod has proven how well this can be done in her newest novel, The Admiral's Wife.
In the few years prior to a shabby little man in Sarajevo shooting an Austrian archduke and setting the world ablaze, Isabel Taylor finds herself in Hong Kong as the wife of an admiral newly appointed to command the Royal Navy's China Fleet. With the reader—but not the characters—fully aware of the looming First World War, the story is shadowed with foreboding, with our knowledge that this would be the apogee of the British Empire.
Alternately, we're invited into the complicated life of Patricia Findlay, a thoroughly modern forty-year-old daughter of a wealthy Chinese-Hong Kong family. Educated and enjoying a successful professional career in the United States, where she's also married a European-American husband, Patricia feels more American than Chinese. She decides it's time to return to Hong Kong to reconnect with her dictatorial banker father and imperious socialite mother. Her husband agrees to take a job at her family's bank.
Two woman, newly arrived in Hong Kong a century apart, both confronting issues of racial intolerance, social hierarchy, and familial obligation. How Ms Tod intertwines their stories is at the heart of this compelling story. Just as Isabel struggles to define her place in the upper reaches of the colonial hierarchy, Patricia struggles finding her space within her family and its business. Isabel isn't quite sure how to be a good British admiral's wife; Patricia has rather forgotten the role of a dutiful Chinese daughter. And both are struggling with issues of motherhood and how this has an impact on their self-identity.
Ms Tod herself lived for some years as an expatriate in Hong Kong and this shows through in many ways. Her easy facility with the complicated geography of Hong Kong, her understanding of life as an outsider in a foreign place, her sensitivity to Chinese-Hong Kong culture—all these render the setting and characters utterly convincing.
I admit to holding my breath when diving into The Admiral's Wife. At this moment in literary history, accusations of cultural appropriation are flung widely and often. The author, a White European-Canadian, could have been put off by the threat of such accusations. However, she deftly handles her Chinese characters with sensitivity and humility. There is nothing gratuitous and she scrupulously avoids stereotypes while creating deeply textured, three-dimensional characters whom the reader cares about.
I've read some of Ms Tod's earlier books and her craftsmanship and creativity are undiminished. This volume is flawlessly edited and beautifully formatted, with a fetching cover. She writes with such easy fluency and skill that the pages turn themselves. This novel is prime book club fodder and an excellent read for any historical or general fiction fan who appreciates fine writing.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Jeffrey K. Walker