I loved this! It’s been a long time since Edward Rutherfurd’s last novel was published (Paris in 2013), but China is so good I think it’s definitely been worth the wait. It’s slightly different from his earlier novels – all of which I have read and enjoyed – because whereas those previous books follow the history of a country, city or region over a period of many centuries, this one covers a much shorter period, telling the story of China in the 19th century. At nearly 800 pages, that decision to concentrate only on one century allows for more character development and more time spent exploring each historical event or incident in detail.
Beginning in 1839, the first few sections of the novel deal with the First Opium War, taking us through the complicated background to this conflict from the perspectives of several different characters: Shi-Rong, secretary to Commissioner Lin, the man responsible for trying to end the illegal import of opium into China; John Trader, a British merchant who has become involved in the opium trade to improve his financial situation so that he can marry the woman he loves; Nio, a Chinese pirate and opium smuggler; and John’s cousin Cecil Whiteparish, who is a missionary. This range of viewpoints helps to build a full picture of the events leading to the Opium Wars and what happens in the aftermath. These characters and their families appear again and again throughout the novel as the years go by and they are drawn into other key events such as the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.
In a novel of this length, it was inevitable that I would find some parts much more interesting than others – for example, the chapters involving Nio’s adopted sister Mei-Ling who makes the decision to have her little girl’s feet bound while her husband is in America working on the railroads were particularly compelling. However, my favourite sections of the book were those narrated by ‘Lacquer Nail’, a eunuch in the service of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I’m not sure whether it’s because Lacquer Nail is the only character whose story is told in the first person instead of third, but he really comes to life in a way that some of the others don’t. I could have read a whole book about his adventures alone.
Like all of Rutherfurd’s novels, this one is clearly the result of a huge amount of research; as well as the coverage of major political and military events, we are given lots of fascinating little snippets of information on Chinese folklore, crafts such as calligraphy and pottery, and the details of the tea ritual and other traditions. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the various locations in which the action takes place, including Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong, Macao and, in Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. I think anyone with even the slightest curiosity about China, its history, geography and people, will find a lot to interest them in this book – just be aware that it’s quite a commitment and will take a while to get through, even for the fastest of readers!
If China doesn’t appeal, I can highly recommend almost any of Edward Rutherfurd’s other books, particularly Sarum, Russka and his two novels about Ireland.
Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 27/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.