Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Jamie Ford

Published by Allison & Busby 12 September 2017

352pp, paperback, £14.99

Reviewed by Rachel Hore

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Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009), a powerful exploration of a dark episode in Seattle’s history – the internment in camps of its vibrant Japanese community during World War II – spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list.  In this new fictional outing he colonizes similar territory, but this time he follows the fortunes of a young half-Chinese immigrant in the city.

Ford ably and movingly dramatizes Yung Kun-ai’s pitiful childhood as ‘neither pure Oriental or Caucasian, nor fully American or Chinese’. In China in 1902, this five-year-old bastard son of a white missionary and a Cantonese girl witnesses his mother suffocating his new-born half-sister because the woman has only ‘soups made from mossy rocks and …boiled shoe leather’ to feed them on.  Subsequently she hands Yung Kun-ai over to a white merchant in order to save her son from the Chinese Boxers who are slaughtering missionaries, foreigners and their offspring.  On the boy’s arrival in Seattle, Mrs Irvine, a detestably narrow-minded, fervently religious matron, sponsors him to attend a school where, renamed Ernest Young, he’s treated as a servant rather than a student. In 1909, angry at the fourteen-year-old’s rejection of the humble employment she’s organized for him, she punishes his lack of gratitude by raffling him off as a prize at Seattle’s World Fair.  She’s horrified, however, when the lucky winner is the exotic Madam Flora, a brothel owner, and Young ends up working in the city’s famed red light district where, remarkably, he thrives.

In parallel to this narrative runs one set in 1962, shortly before the opening of another World Fair in the city.  Here we find Ernest Young retired, married to Gracie, who is suffering a mysterious kind of dementia, and the father of two grown-up daughters, one of whom, Juju, a journalist, badgers him finally into revealing his life story.  There is less energy about this aspect of the book than the earlier tale, as though it’s a framing device rather than a true opportunity for Ernest to reflect on the past and to make further sense of it. One is, however, made curious about Gracie’s true identity and the nature of her illness.

The strengths of this traditionally told novel lie in the richness of its setting, which must have involved an impressive amount of research, and in the vividness of some of the characters – particularly Madam Flora and her daughters, and a young Japanese maid, Fahn, sold into servitude.  Ernest himself is convincingly drawn, but he is passive for a protagonist, often more of a survivor than an agent of his own destiny, which may be a reason that the past narrative sometimes loses drive.  The reader does however gain a strong sense of the character of the city, its teeming masses, its politics, the bitter, sometimes violent struggles between the religious and business elements. Above all, there is the establishment’s deep failure to address social injustice, especially for immigrants.  Ernest’s story must have been representative of many, and in this alone is worth the telling.

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