–the author and his Chinese author wife, Anchee Min
The Concubine Saga is a compilation of two previous novels by Lloyd Lofthouse (My Splendid Concubine and Our Hart) about the life of Robert Hart, an Irishman who went to China in the mid-1800’s to work for the British Consulate. Historical fiction is my favorite book genre, so I was excited to receive this Kindle edition of The Concubine Saga for the this blog tour. I was engaged in the book from the beginning. I don’t believe I had read anything about pre-revolution China since I read many of the wonderful Pearl S. Buck books years ago, so it was good to be reminded of the culture that had existed for thousands of years. Written from Robert Hart’s point of view, I enjoyed learning about his life and loves as Mr. Lofthouse imagined. Robert Hart was successful in China and served for the British and then later for the Chinese themselves and was so because of his desire to learn how Chinese people think, not just how to do business with them. He was curious about their culture, their art, and their literature, etc.
I enjoyed reading Mr. Lofthouse’s saga because it was a true story about an above average intelligent, enlightened man. Hart was not just concerned only with making money like most Europeans and Americans in China at the time. He really wanted to immerse himself in the culture concerning all aspects of life and not just commerce. I enjoyed how Mr. Lofthouse showed Hart’s conflict of his white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism versus his wanting to understand the Chinese concubine system in play at the time. Any time Hart found himself drawn to one of the concubines, he did address his moral concerns and differences with the Chinese. Not that this concern really stopped him from doing anything he really desired to do, but it did highlight the differences in the cultures.
—Vanity Fair cover of Robert Hart from 1894 (from Wikipedia)
I learned a lot about the Taiping uprisings, the Opium Wars, and about the role Hart played in modernizing China at the time, mainly dealing with infrastructure. Of course, I liked the personal dramas in Hart’s life and his relationships even more. As Mr. Lofthouse states in his preface, much of the source material was Hart’s own diaries and a cache of documents about Hart’s personal life the Chinese had kept locked away for a long time. I was also introduced to some other western real-life characters such as Frederick Townsend Ward and Horatio Nelson Lay. I enjoyed the interspersing of Chinese poetry in the book and even learned about some of the poets such as Qu Yuan after looking them up on my own.
What did I not like about the book? Well, there were several areas of concern. I thought the editing of this book could have been much better. I found numerous disjointed and just plain terrible sentences. Sometimes current day vernacular was used by the characters. For example, “I’ll introduce you to the old hag, and she’ll hook you up.” Another is “What I did was the right thing to do,” Robert replied. “Get out of my face.”
Below is also an example of an exchange that seemed really unnecessary and added nothing to the novel:
“What are you doing here, Hart?” Burgevine said. He didn’t look at Robert when he passed a loud fart.
The stench was worse than the flatulence from a full-grown swine. Robert had to step back so he wouldn’t gag. “Good god, Burgevine,” Robert said. “Did you have to do that?”
There are numerous sex scenes in this book but I really don’t think any of the writing of these was outstanding. They were just okay to me and actually, there were really too many just for the sake, it seemed, to have a lot of sex in the novel. None were extremely memorable or extremely passionate, in my opinion.
I am so used to reading good historical fiction such as the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell, that I had issue with some of the writing and editing in this combination of two novels. However, I enjoyed the story itself and have to say I would recommend this book to someone wanting to learn a little bit about 19th century Chinese culture and also to someone wanting to know more about the the life of Sir Robert Hart. I probably will read Mr. Lofthouse’s forthcoming novel, Better a Dead Hero, if I can find more info on what it is about and when it will be released . . .
–Sir Robert Hart (from Wikipedia)