South China Morning Blues
By: Ray Hecht
I received and ARC copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
I had a serious love/hate relationship with this book.
I’m issuing a tepid recommendation of South China Morning Blues.
To be honest, I was a bit confused by this book, and within 30 pages (the number of pages I commit to before deciding to give up on a book) I had taken offense and was ready to quit. As someone who has lived in Shanghai for a few years and who has grown quite fond of China and Chinese culture, the complaints about and blatant disrespect towards China and its people really turned me off. Upon opening the book the reader is assaulted with foul attitudes. To make matters worse, this book is drenched in licentious behavior, which is the last thing I wanted to read about just after Ramadan, and is something I try to avoid in general. When I agree to read and review a book, I generally try to read it cover to cover unless it’s a really terrible book. South China Morning Blues, while irksome in the beginning, had just enough intrigues to keep me reading.
South China Morning Blues is actually three separate books, with separate plots and characters that don’t mix until the third book (actually, there may have been some mixing partway through the second book). At times I had a hard time keeping track of the characters and figuring out their relationships with one another. In this respect, those who can’t read Chinese would benefit from keeping the Dramatis Personae on hand. Bookmark the page and keep returning to it if you have too. Even with the ability to remember who was whom based on the Chinese, I still got lost from time to time.
Despite the difficulty of creating and developing 12 different characters, Hecht manages the task fairly well. Hecht doesn’t attempt to create twelve fully-fledged characters. Rather, he allows secondary personalities to be involved on the story while heavily leaning on the main actors. He doesn’t arbitrarily focus on characters. Instead, he develops the lesser characters only as instruments to further the plot of the novel. The plot of the novel kept my interested. I was genuinely curious as to what would happen next. At times, I was disappointed because I knew exactly what was coming, but there were moments when the turn of events actually surprised me.
Throughout the novel there are a few instances of forced symbolism (I won’t include them here so as to avoid turning people’s subconsciouses towards them), and I was a little irritated by the stereotypical characters. I must admit, though, that part of my irritation stemmed from being well-acquainted with the stereotypes presented: alcoholic writers, unqualified stoner English teachers, and lewd business men. The gratuitous sex scenes definitely hindered the novel. For the most part, the plot could have been advanced without them. On the same token, South China Morning Blues would have been an entirely different novel had the characters been chaste. I came to accept the sex as part of the characters’ personalities. The female characters struck me as overly needy in their desire for sex, but at least they usually took matters into their own hands. They were the predators rather than the prey (but the women let the men believe the men were in charge, which I found to be a hilariously accurate depiction of life in general).
While I’m not in love with the book, it was a good, light read. The word choice is neither too simple nor unnecessarily complicated. My surprise at some of the events in the novel is the reason I gave it such a high rating; towards the end I felt sorry for some of the characters I initially hated. Eliciting such a reaction shows craftiness on Hecht’s part. South China Morning Blues is a novel I might read again some time in the distant future, but it’s not something I’d keep on my favorites shelf.