Book Review: The Concubine’s Child by Carol Jones

The Concubine's ChildAbout the Book

In 1930s Malaya a sixteen-year-old girl, dreaming of marriage to her sweetheart, is sold as a concubine to a rich old man desperate for an heir. Trapped, and bullied by his spiteful wife, Yu Lan plans to escape with her baby son, despite knowing that they will pursue her to the ends of the earth.

Four generations later, her great-grandson, Nick, will return to Malaysia, looking for the truth behind the facade of a house cursed by the unhappy past. Nothing can prepare him for what he will find.

This exquisitely rich novel brings to life a vanished world – a world of abandoned ghost houses, inquisitive monkeys, smoky temples and a panoply of gods and demons. A world where a poor girl can be sold to fulfil a rich man’s dream. But though he can buy her body, he can never capture her soul, nor quench her spirit.

Format: ebook, hardcover (384 pp.)                  Publisher: Head of Zeus
Published: 1st April (ebook), 31st May 2018  (hardcover) Genre: Historical Fiction

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Find The Concubine’s Child on Goodreads

My Review

When Yu Lan’s father, an apothecary, contracts her to be the ‘second wife’ or concubine of rich mine owner, Chan Boon Siew, she has no idea what lies in store for her.  As well as the unwelcome attentions of her new husband eager to beget the sons that his first wife has been unable to provide, Yu Lan has to cope with life as a virtual prisoner in their home and the jealousy of Chan’s first wife.  It turns out that the role of ‘second wife’ amounts to that of a second-class citizen with none of the ‘rights’ or position of respect granted to a first wife.  ‘But as a concubine, a chieh, her husband would decide when and if she might visit her birth family.  As a concubine, she would receive no dowry of gold and jewellery, own no property. She wouldn’t return to her parents’ home on the third day after the wedding with gifts of roast pig and other delicacies….There would be no red posters outside the apothecary’s shop announcing to all that her father was receiving a gifted son-in-law into their family.’

Furthermore, as events unfold, Yu Lan is forced to see Mrs. Chan usurp the role of mother to the son to whom she gives birth.  Initially cowed into submission, Yu Lan eventually finds help and friendship in the person of Ho Jie, amah to the Chan household and a so-called ‘self-combed woman’.   In due course, Yu Lan finds the courage to fight back in a way that will have repercussions down the years.

I’ve previously confessed that I sometimes have problems with books that have a dual timeline structure; often I find the story set in the past much more compelling than that set in the present day.  I’m pleased to report that, in the case of The Concubine’s Child, although I did find Yu Lan’s story the most absorbing, the modern day story also held my attention – not least because of the curved ball the author delivers part way through the book.

The modern day story, as well as being a search for answers about Nick’s family history, is also an insightful portrait of a marriage under strain.  It’s a marriage where the intense flames of first love have died down, not helped by Nick’s decision to accept an academic posting in Kuala Lumpur that will mean him and his wife, Sarah, spending months apart.    Eventually, Sarah will face heartbreaking choices about their life together.

Although set in Kuala Lumpur, the book is full of fascinating detail about Chinese customs, festivals, clothing and food.  And there are some evocative descriptions of the landscape and wildlife of Malaysia.  ‘A chorus of cicadas greeted them as they stepped onto a path that wound through thick forest.  It followed the course of a river that cascaded over boulders in a gradual descent down the mountain.  Small lizards poked their heads out from under decaying leaves that carpeted the jungle floor, while the occasional centipede scurried underfoot.  Above them the trees echoed with the chatter of monkeys and unfamiliar birdcalls.’

The Concubine’s Child is a powerful story of love, loss and of history repeating itself.  Oh, and that revenge is a dish best served cold…and perhaps stinky?

You can read a fantastic guest post here from Carol about how her first trip to Malaysia provided the inspiration for the setting of her novel. Oh, and her experiences of naughty macaques.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Head of Zeus, and NetGalley in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Compelling, atmospheric, emotional

Try something similar…Court of Lions by Jane Johnson (read my review here)

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHAbout the Author

Born in Brisbane, Australia, Carol Jones taught English and Drama at secondary schools before working as an editor of children’s magazines. She is the author of several young adult novels as well as children’s non-fiction.

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