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5.0 out of 5 stars My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart in 1 glorious volume!, November 6, 2011
This review is from: My Splendid Concubine (Kindle Edition)
Like most historical fiction novels which center on actual personalities and events, My Splendid Concubine traces the true-life exploits of Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911), the celebrated expatriate official credited for bringing China (kicking and screaming) out of the medieval ages and into the 20th century. So influential was this Irishman, scholars continue to debate over who is more deserving of the honorary title "Godfather of China's Modernism:" Sir Robert Hart or Deng Xiaoping, architect of China's new economic reform.

Lofthouse, thankfully, leaves the drier discourse to the academicians and instead beguilingly explores Robert Hart's riotous first years in the Orient, namely all the sex and violence that an expat living in mid-1800's China (what this reviewer calls the "Chaos Dynasty") would most likely encounter. Set to a tumultuous backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion, opium wars and foreign invasion, Concubine opens with an indelible portrait of besieged China emerging from its 5,000 year-old cocoon to realize that it just may no longer be the Center of the World it once thought itself as.

The days of nobles sipping tea by their lotus ponds are over; Shanghai and Hong Kong have become "foreign devil" enclaves of ill-mannered, lusty European merchants ("To gold and silver and the women it buys!") capitalizing on China's untapped treasures: opium, silk and spice by day...virgin teenage girls by night. Such prurience might be too much for some readers to handle, however, as Lofthouse quotes the sagacious governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, advising a newly-arrived Hart, "Just because it is shocking, don't turn away from such lessons in life."

Not all of Concubine's literary cast are as erudite, and Lofthouse is obliged to painfully reveal many prejudiced discussions between Hart's compatriots which, sadly, to this day remain the general consensus of China by the intolerant west: "The Chinese can't manage things...Everyone in China is out to fill his purse with silver, and there is little or no concern about the smooth running of the government or the economy. These fools are penny wise and pound-foolish. Stealing and telling lies is a way of life here."

They are naïve statements against the Chinese heard all too often in the din of modern-day expat haunts around Beijing and Shanghai, but neither Lofthouse nor his 19th century protagonist buys into the stereotype; Hart diligently sets out to understand China's oft-misunderstood culture for himself despite the arrogance of his western counterparts who say of the Chinese, "It is their place to understand us. We don't have to understand them."

An unfortunate attitude many China expats (whom Hart refers to as "spoilers of the earth") share, yes, but if Hart's colleagues embody all of our fears and confusions about China, then we come to see Hart himself as our understanding and our empathy. He is the tourist most foreigners in China strive to be in spite of our own intolerances, and while Hart's keen observations of 1850's China may be strikingly similar to those witnessed even in 2008 ("People don't change as the dynasty does," writes the ever-profound Lofthouse), bigotry no longer has a welcome seat at the table of the new millennium.

My Splendid Concubine is a thought-provoking novel about attitudes and cultures, but Lloyd Lofthouse is a masterful yarn-spinner as well, weaving a well-balanced dose of suspense and page-turning action. Posted as a rookie customs official in coastal Zhejiang province's Ningbo along the Yangtze River Delta, 20 year-old Hart is suddenly forced out of his sheltered office gig and finds himself involved in a skirmish against Taiping rebels, a true-life 15-year uprising by Chinese peasants against the Qing Dynasty government resulting in over 30 million casualties.

Himself a Vietnam vet, Lofthouse paints battle as blood-red as it surely must be. Armed with western muzzles "spitting jagged orange flames of death," Hart takes his first life, but not without the same dumbfounding, bile-inducing reaction that may have come straight from the author's own memory: "He had just killed someone. The thought numbed him for a moment. It was good that his weapons were thinking for him."

It is during this scene of bedlam that our protagonist meets Ayaou, a teenage boat girl whom Hart rescues along with her family. In turn, Ayaou's father offers her and her sister for sale as concubines to their protectors.

Hart is at once disgusted and stirred by the thought of "taking bids on her virginity," but admits to himself that "it bothered him more that he found the idea tempting." Herein lays the genius of My Splendid Concubine, for Lofthouse portrays the legendary Sir Robert Hart not as an icon of righteousness that his future bronze statue in Shanghai Square would convey to the masses, but as a layman conflicted between the values of his faith and the temptations of an exotic country, summed up in one lucid sentence: "Though it appalled him, Robert still wanted to understand."

The thought of purchasing a woman "like a chair or a piece of art" may disturb 21st century readers as much as it did Robert Hart two centuries ago, but the fact is that concubinage was a socially accepted practice. Chinese emperors traditionally kept thousands of concubines to enhance the royal bloodline; in turn, European merchants residing in imperial China mimicked this form of quasi-matrimonial relationship on a smaller scale.

Lofthouse's Hart is not an idol; he is a flawed man, a real human being who is no stranger to vice or sin. In his dark past he has contracted syphilis from British college girls, he cheats with his new boss's girlfriend upon arriving in China, and now he is faced with temptation in the form of pubescent flesh that can be had for mere pocket change. It is a range of emotions any man traversing the forlorn roads of the word knows all to well: "He was a traveler on a lonely journey, who occasionally embraced human affections the same way that he took the sun and water."

Robert Hart recognizes that "he hadn't sailed halfway around the world to indulge in women," yet longs to escape the "stifling morality of England." In order to shake his Victorian guilt, Hart realizes he must separate himself with Victoria, and allows himself to fall for teenage Ayaou - not in the heartless manner of his foreign friends who see Chinese women merely as "bed warmers" until returning to their native countries ("Most of us leave China eventually, and the women stay behind. It isn't an appealing fate"), but as an honest person longing for true love: "He hoped that she was the woman he'd always dreamed of."

Theirs is a passionate relationship. Each initially doing their best to restrain themselves ("He twined his fingers together and locked his hands behind his back lest they escape and reach for her."), curiosity and rapture quickly overcomes Hart as much as it does the virgin Ayaou. Lofthouse voyeuristically pulls away the nine-paneled silk screen from their oft-used bed, but approaches their couplings with literary deftness, arousing the reader with gentle romance ("He kissed her neck and ran his tongue along her smooth flesh. She tasted like the ocean."), before assaulting us with a climax of vivid XXX-rated details, the likes of which only lascivious historical fiction storyteller Gary Jennings heretofore could only conjure.

Regardless of the novel's title, Ayaou is not nor does she ever become within the parameters of the story Sir Robert Hart's "concubine." For all intents and purposes, she is stolen property liberated by Hart from a rival whom he considers undeserving of Ayaou's affections. Beginning with their first embrace, Hart and Ayaou's entire relationship is founded on deceit and infidelity ("What they had was like a fantasy, and he wondered when it would dissolve"), which lends to the uncomfortable sense of anxiety felt throughout the book, ominously hanging over the reader like a dark cloud, as would any illicit affair - cheating can't possibly have a happy ending, especially in the lawlessness of 19th century China.

Hart's true splendid concubine, bought and paid for with opium-tainted Chinese RMB, is in fact Ayaou's little sister, a pubescent firecracker named Shao-mei. Hart gallantly purchases Shao-mei to spare her from the talons of his fellow foreigners. Only fourteen years old, the blossoming Shao-mei is admittedly even more desirable to the insatiable Brit than Ayaou, but Hart is intent on staying faithful to the woman who "fought her way into his heart."

Curious of the pleasures she hears through the wall at night, the jealous younger sister Shao-mei attempts to seduce Hart at every turn: "I'm not a finished woman, but I am a woman." She slid her hands down the length of her nude torso to her vulva..."If you aren't pleased because I don't have full breasts yet, I promise that they'll grow to the size of tomatoes in a few months. I'm not lying. See, these nipples were not like this a few weeks ago." She fondled a nipple and it hardened and stood at attention."

While the China around him is literally on fire with opium wars and Taping rebellions, Sir Robert Hart is on the front lines of his own private "battle of the flesh." Adding to Hart's bittersweet frustrations, Ayaou uses Chinese logic to try to persuade him into enjoying her juvenile sister, so that the three can live together in harmony: "If I am your happiness, by having her you will achieve double happiness." It is arguably every man's fantasy, but Hart's Wesleyan beliefs, and fear of sibling rivalry, prohibit him from indulging in the sisterly threesome.

"Your passion is like an ocean," Ayaou admits to Hart one night after he refuses to enter Shao-mei ('s chamber). "Why not spare a little of that for my sister? It is all she is asking for. Would you acknowledge that I sometimes can't keep up with you? You want me three times a night, and sometimes that is not enough. Why can't you let Shao-mei take some pressure off me?"

My Splendid Concubine is rife with the sexual dalliances of a white man adrift in China ("What a strange night, a strange place and strange girls"), and will undoubtedly appeal to the backpacker set looking for a good read during those long train rides from Beijing to Xi'an. Lofthouse also plaits his page-turning story with amusing cultural anecdotes that surely must have come from the author's personal observations of China ("Live here long enough, see crazy things") as well as his own experiences married to a Chinese woman, but does so with wit and deference, such as with the line "Robert tried to avoid watching Ayaou spitting out mice bones. He wondered if he could still kiss her after seeing her do that."

In fact, Lloyd Lofthouse is to be commended for writing a novel that so cleverly balances an engaging tale of culture and romance with a wealth of period detail that will educate readers about dynastic China as thoroughly as any university textbook. And while he may have a few more bestsellers to go before he can be compared with the great James Clavell, famed for his Asian Saga historical fiction series, Lofthouse knows his China, and definitely knows his Robert Hart.

What would become an "academic and then personal treasure hunt," Lofthouse spent nine years meticulously researching Sir Robert Hart's past before piecing together the lost years of his life that purportedly went up in flames when Hart burned the most intimate passages of his diary, including details of his affair with Ayaou.

Just as the Chinese prefer explanations that come around to the meaning in a circle instead of a straight line, Lofthouse prefers to keep the methods of his inexhaustible research under wraps, but rumors of Lofthouse and wife Anchee Min sneaking into a top-secret Communist Party archive in Shanghai to retrieve an official Red Guard dossier entitled "British Imperialist Robert Hart's intimate corrupted life" is just too delicious not to footnote in this review.

Sir Robert Hart, 1st Baronet of Ireland, resided in China for over fifty years as British Consular and Inspector General of China's Imperial Maritime Custom Service. As the architect behind China's railway network, postal service and education system, Hart was conferred numerous Chinese awards and titles, and also had the supreme honor to be both the first foreigner and the first non-imperial male ever to appear in the presence of Empress Dowager Cixi. As Anchee Min writes in her foreword to Concubine, "Few know that Sir Robert Hart was once a household name in China...a giant moral hero."

My Splendid Concubine depicts another half of Sir Robert Hart: the dark half that Hart himself relegated to ashes and the Communist Party of China put on trial half a century after his death. Conscious that historical fiction readers demand potboilers over academic fare, Lofthouse plays on Hart's notoriety, and obviously has fun while doing it.

But behind the scandalous, revisionist adventures My Splendid Concubine is a comprehensible and remarkably accurate narrative history of real-life man whom the author quite obviously admires, and in doing so presents an authentic story that readers interested in world culture can draw a number of invaluable lessons from.

As Sir Robert Hart came to China to run away from his past transgressions, so do we travel to escape, but we also travel to learn by immersion. And for those of us who do not have the luxury of drifting across the world, we rely on imaginative yet resourceful authors such as Lloyd Lofthouse to immerse us in times, places and persons whom might otherwise be forgotten in the dusty archives of the Red Guard.

###

When we last saw our hero, or should we say, our Hart, 19th century China was being raped, ravaged and rebelled against from every direction. South China has been taken over by European merchants determined to turn the entire country into one big opium den, British military patrolling the Eastern shore are forcing the emperor to pay reparations "for wars China lost but didn't start," whilst Christian fanatics called Taiping are waging bloody hell against imperialism.

Enter a broken, distraught man who has just witnessed the rape and murder of one of his two beloved concubines. It is no secret who the perpetrator is, but instead of having the means or status to avenge his love, Robert Hart must "swallow his hate" and go into hiding with his remaining concubine, Ayaou, for as it turns out, it was she who was his nemesis's intended victim. Some hero!

Robert Hart, as sketched by Lofthouse, was never, in fact, meant to be a hero. He is an admittedly flawed man with weaknesses, vices and sins: he is not above cold-blooded revenge; the "childlike bodies" of Chinese women "excite him"; he even steals concubines from his friends ("He didn't know what was worse - having syphilis or another man hating him").

But Hart's coming-of-age during his riotous first years in China, underscored by the tragic loss of one of his concubines, has now turned the boy into a man, and a bitter one at that, since "replacing the pain with anger made him feel like a thief and a liar."

Just as our protagonist has matured, complete with a receding hairline, `Our Hart' the novel is also a more mature read than its predecessor. Passion has been replaced by piety while the lust of the first novel has been lost to love ("He had changed...what he enjoyed more was the companionship"). Rather than spending his nights exploring his concubine's body, an older Hart is now kept awake exploring his heart.

Yet despite saving Hart's life in battle and being his Chinese voice of reason throughout his career, Ayaou remains just that: his concubine ("she came from peasant stock...she didn't know any other way"). Hart, in a crisis of conscience that many an expat might identify with, "dreads the day he has to tell his friends and family back home about her." Even after Ayaou gives birth to their first child, Hart remains conflicted ("If he named the baby, he was accepting responsibility..."). And how many westerners residing overseas can relate to this all-too-real passage: "One part of him wanted to make a marriage proposal, but his other half, the British half, said no." Hart, by way of Lloyd Lofthouse, is the voice of any expat who has ever lived and loved in China.

From dealing with the bedroom complexities that came with having two competing concubines, to dealing with the political complexities of competing imperial officials; from the weight of a pubescent concubine in Robert Hart's arms to the weight of an ancient empire on his shoulders, the story of `Our Hart' is divided by romantic drama and political intrigue as the protagonist himself is divided by his allegiance to both China and England.

`Our Hart' is a dark novel intent on capturing the despondent spirit of an outsider immersed in a brutal, bloody period of Chinese history. Dynastic Chinese nobility may have held an affinity for scenery and poetry to escape the harsh reality of medieval life, but Lofthouse, writing through the frantic eyes of his title character, wastes no time with lyrical beauty, with nary a description of a sunset to brighten its pages: "The world turned black and white with occasional violent flashes...there was no color in his life."

Lofthouse gets down and dirty with gritty, old-fashioned storytelling, proletariat-style, but where author Lofthouse truly shines is his thought-provoking messages on relationships, attitudes and cultures.

When Lofthouse writes, "It is a sad truth that most (foreigners) only come to China to steal from us or cheat us. They do not spend the time to learn about our people and culture. They sail in...buy Chinese women, defile them and leave the women with ruined lives," it is commentary directed at western expats as valid in 2010 as it was in the mid-1800's.

`Our Hart' may also borrow a page from the author's own experiences married to a Chinese, for only a white man who has ever experienced the near impossibility of trying to reason with an angry Chinese woman ("her voice was high, screeching") could pen the emotionally exhausting dialogue described in the brilliant Chapter 13 - and then sum it up in what this reviewer considers perhaps the book's most poignant sentence: "Understanding her behavior didn't stop him from resenting it."

To be sure, just as Robert Hart had his flaws, so too does `Our Hart'. With such a rich cast of characters in Hart's universe whom Lofthouse could have tapped for the occasional alternative perspective to the storyline, one wonders why the author was set on a single, one-dimensional narrative. In this respect, Lofthouse could stand to learn from historical fiction masters James Michener and James Clavell, famed for plaiting their epic tales with intersecting subplots. Nonetheless, for its steamy romance and grapeshot-like action sequences, this reviewer nominates Lofthouse's `Concubine' saga Most Likely to be Optioned for a Film or Miniseries.

Lloyd Lofthouse is to be commended for immortalizing China's most exemplary expatriate in the pages of his `Concubine' books. For all his faults and sins, Sir Robert Hart was a true hero to both Chinese and westerners alike. Hart resided in China for over fifty years as "the lord and master of Chinese Maritime Customs" while serving the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. He was conferred numerous awards and titles and had a bronze statue constructed in his honor at Shanghai Square.

Yet as Shanghai-born authoress Anchee Min wrote in her prologue to `My Splendid Concubine,' "Few know that Sir Robert Hart was once a household name in China." A Beijing Today review of `Concubine' also had it correct when it declared "today Hart is entirely without fame...the most famous foreigner in China would be Dashan." True, true. But in spite of Dashan's cool hair or his god-like name recognition amongst the television-addicted masses of New China, it is highly unlikely that the Canadian CCTV host will ever inspire anyone to pen novels about him.

In fact, one wonders if historical fiction is not a dying art simply because, thus far, the 21st century lacks any real heroes like Sir Robert Hart for future authors to write about.

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Location: Shanghai, China

Top Reviewer Ranking: 1,177,767