The Russian Concubine
Don’t judge this book by its cover. To look at The Russian Concubine, you might expect a steamy romance novel, but there is much more to it than romance. This stunning debut brings the atmosphere of 1920s China vividly to life. The fictional city of Junchow is divided into two districts that have little to do with each other: the International Settlement, inhabited by Westerners only, and the Chinese Old Town. The Westerners treat the Chinese as second-class citizens (if that), fit only to be servants. Socializing between the two groups is strictly forbidden. Then one day, Lydia Ivanova, a teenaged Russian exile living in a dingy attic in the International Settlement with her mother Valentina, a concert pianist, wanders into the Chinese town and is rescued by Chang An Lo, a young Chinese Communist. Lydia and Chang soon become friends in spite of the enormous differences in their backgrounds. Eventually, they fall in love. But Chang is in danger both from Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, who are hunting down the Communists, and from the dangerous Black Snake brotherhood and its leader Feng Tu Hong. Lydia must not let anyone know of their romance—not her mother, not her mother’s new suitor, a British journalist, not even her schoolmaster, Theo Willoughby, who himself keeps a Chinese mistress in spite of society’s disapproval. Furnivall draws an excellent portrait of this distant time and place. Her characters are not entirely sympathetic—Lydia lies and steals with no regret, although she does it to survive—but that makes them all the more human. There is quite a bit of sex and even more violence in the last part of the book, but this should not deter readers. I hope to see more from this author.