A young girl forced to become a concubine to a much older man, a curse, a haunted house and a tragedy affecting four generations of one family. All the elements of a good read are here and this powerful novel does not disappoint.
The story is set in two different eras, the 1930s and the present day. Yu Lan is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a Chinese apothecary living in 1930s Kuala Lumpur. She is in love and dreams of happiness with her boyfriend Ming, but her hopes are dashed when her father sells her as a concubine to the Chan family to pay his gambling debts. Madam Chan, unable to bear children herself and resentful, treats the girl as a servant and Yu Lan has no choice but to submit to sex with Madam Chan’s husband the towkay, rich owner of a tin mine.
In time, Yu Lan bears him a son. Her efforts to escape are thwarted and she loses the will to live. Before she dies, she curses the Chan line and over the following decades appears as a neuih gwai or ghost girl in the family house, a constant reminder of the past.
In the present day, we meet Sarah, married to Nick Chan, grandson of the concubine’s son Wei Long. Sarah is career-driven and decides to stay in the UK when her husband takes up an academic post in Kuala Lumpur. Born in the UK, Nick is keen to explore his roots and manages to find Wei Long in a care home at the end of his life. Then tragedy strikes again.
The book is very well written and obviously carefully researched. The chapters set in the Chan household are very convincing and you feel Yu Lan’s despair as she loses both her hope and her identity, becoming only the concubine and Second Mother to Wei Long. The descriptions of the Kuala Lumpur countryside are beautiful and the details of ancient traditions still upheld in the 1930s fascinating.
Each character and turn of events from the 1930s is mirrored in the present day in order to demonstrate how the curse persists. I found this rather forced at times, but on the whole I really enjoyed the novel.
I think reading groups would probably find plenty to discuss about the position of women in society at different times in history and about the persistence of cultural traditions.
Gwenda Major 4/4
The Concubine’s Child by Carol Jones
Head of Zeus 9781786699824 pbk Jun 2018