The Russian Concubine

Written by Kate Furnivall


As one of the characters remarks early in this novel, Russian and Chinese history is of little interest to people living in England. This is 1928, not today, I hasten to add, but it may explain why we are so familiar with the plight of Russian refugees from the 1917 revolution who came to Paris or London but know little about those who went east and arrived in China. Kate Furnivall’s novel, inspired by her own mother’s life story, came as a revelation to me.

Fifteen-year-old Lydia lives with her feckless mother in the international settlement in Junchow. Quick-witted, resourceful and, of course, beautiful, Lydia is also an accomplished pickpocket and it is this which precipitates the novel’s complex and far-reaching plot. This is a huge saga of love and loss, politics and gangsterism, peopled with rich and memorable characters. It is, however, over-long and marred by some sloppy writing in parts – a market stall which shouts, for example, and a stationary engine described as heaving – and those are in the first ten pages. What a pity Furnivall did not have the benefit of a good copy editor.

For this reader, alas, the ordinariness of the writing spoiled what should have been a unique and irresistible read. A good story deserves to be well written, yet I was left with the overriding impression that the author and her editorial team believed its intrinsic strength and originality were enough on their own. The novel has done very well – and I am delighted for Kate Furnivall that it has – but I lament the apparent fact that the more people there are reading novels, the less discerning they seem to be about the quality of the language.

Recommended with reservations.