The Fat Man’s Daughter
The fat man’s daughter of the title is Leah Kolbe, a beautiful, young, half-American, half-Russian woman, born and raised in Hong Kong. In 1937, when the story begins, she is nineteen years old and her father has just died. Theo Kolbe was a quasi-legitimate dealer in Chinese antiquities. He trained Leah well, and she is qualified to continue in the trade, but his business was not always as it appeared. A mysterious Chinese man named Chang speaks to Leah at Theo’s funeral and suggests they do business together. The deal he presents has Leah traveling to Manchukuo (Manchuria) to meet with the Emperor Henry Pu Yi. Ostensibly, she is to get his permission to arrange a visit from a team of British entomologists who are studying ants, a particular passion of the emperor. In reality, her mission is to meet with the Chief Eunuch, who has been systematically robbing the Imperial City of its treasures. These treasures are to be used to finance the Nationalists, whom Mr. Chang claims to represent. Circumstances force Leah to take the assignment. The trip is full of interesting characters and events including dangerous encounters, betrayals, murder, Japanese bombing raids, and lovers.
Ms. Petit is a new Australian writer, and in this, her first book, she has written a vivid account of a tragic period in China’s history. Her descriptions put you in the time and place with a heart-pounding sense of accuracy. We are in the heroine’s head most of the time, but do not feel her emotion. Her effect is flat throughout the story, perhaps a deliberate ploy of the author to express Leah’s grief. This is a minor criticism and does not detract from the story. The Fat Man’s Daughter is definitely a cannot-put-down book.