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History, Danger and Love: Review of The Shanghai Wife by Emma Harcourt

July 10, 2018

Annabelle Samuels, rebellious heroine of The Shanghai Wife, is standing on the deck of a boat traveling up the mighty Yangtze River, about as far away as she can be from Australia, her father and his Macleay Valley farm, the paddocks and the blowflies.

Annabelle, now called Annie, has shed her previous life like a snake’s skin and is married to the boat’s captain, Alec Brand, after the shortest of courtships. She hadn’t meant to get married, only escape, until up bobbed Alec with his exotic life in far-away Shanghai and offer of ‘a home, a purpose, a belonging,’ appearing as Annie says herself, ‘the perfect romantic male lead’ at just the right time.

 Set in Shanghai in the 1920s, the famous Chinese city presents as a paradox, fabulous, charming and exotic on one hand, desperately poor, chaotic and dangerous as hell on the other.

Add to that the community of British ex-patriates living there who enjoy an entitled, champagne life-style with servants galore, never seeming to take the unrest (unless it means cancelling their fun), very seriously. Reminds you of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Interestingly, The Shanghai Wife is inspired by real events in the life of the author’s own grandmother who, like Annie, ran away from Australia after her father refused her request to study medicine at university. Like Annie, she also married a man who captained a boat that sailed up and down the Yangtze and lived in Shanghai in the early 1920s.

But there the commonalities end. Annie has her own reasons for running away and her story takes off with great page turning urgency once she’s forced off the boat and returns to Shanghai at her husband’s insistence. He’s heard of pirates on the river and thinks it’s too dangerous for her to continue. Appalled, Annie realises that leaving her father ‘hadn’t changed anything. She had no more control over her life now, the only difference was that she took care of a husband….She wanted to scream…’

 Now alone and back in Shanghai, Annie refuses to comply with the rules. Turning her back on the life-style of the ex-pat women who do little else beyond gossip and organise parties, she goes her own way, trying to get to know the real Shanghai and the local community.

Like an innocent moth, Annie blunders into a very sticky web of intrigue amidst increasing turmoil and violence in the great city. Against everyone’s better judgement including her own, she enjoys a wild and risky love affair that brings her great joy. But can it possibly end well?

While Annie makes mistakes and has to face the consequences, she means well and her flaws only make her more human, more likeable. Annie’s story also reminds us that the freedom we have as women to decide our own fate wasn’t always so – and how irritating that must have been.

Above all, The Shanghai Wife will delight fans of historical fiction who like to be taken places and told terrific stories, as well as anyone who enjoys experiencing a life lived to the full in one of the world’s most fabulous cities at a very interesting time.

About The Author

Emma Harcourt has worked as a journalist for over 25 years, in Australia, the UK and Hong Kong. In 2011, she completed the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and The Shanghai Wife was borne. Emma lives in Sydney with her two daughters. She is currently working on her second novel.

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Comments

  1. Nan

    Just started reading first chapter set in 1925. Nylons were not invented until 1939.

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