As war breaks out in Europe, and Japanese troops advance towards Hong Kong, Molly Russell, daughter of the wheelchair‑bound Willard, and her Chinese mother are travelling to Nanchang, an important logistical centre for the Chinese Nationalists, when the train they are on is sabotaged. They are forced to walk towards Hong Kong, but coolies have to carry her mother, who is dying of cholera. Upon arrival they are refused entry, but when Willard hears of their plight, he goes to meet them and pays an exorbitant fee to have them allowed in. When informed of a woman’s death, he misunderstands what he was told and his response causes Molly, who in turn misinterprets his action as callousness, to dissociate herself from him. Shortly afterwards, Molly, who can pass for Chinese, is chosen to be the companion to Tung Nien, the beautiful new bride of Chien Liew, a wealthy, elderly Triad leader, who manipulates events from behind the scenes and is secretly dealing with the Japanese invasion forces.
Tung Nien and Molly are invited into the society of the Westerners, who are aware of the approaching invasion but continue their lives in a cultural inertia. One of them falls in love with Tung Nien, and they begin a clandestine relationship whilst the lives of those around them fragment as the Japanese army draws nearer. Molly in turn is in love with Wu Tang, and they both face an uncertain future in the coming conflict.
House interweaves the impact of a changing society in this meticulously‑researched novel, and captures the strengths and flaws of the Chinese and European cultures and characters with immense skill.