In 1862, a young Jewish man has set sail from his home in Calcutta, heading toward Hong Kong to participate in the opium trade. Emmanuel has left behind his wife Semah, promising to return to her having made his fortune. But while he is in Hong Kong, he falls in love with Pearl, the daughter of his Chinese business partner. He takes Pearl as his wife and builds her the most beautiful mansion anyone has ever seen in Hong Kong.
But Semah refuses to let Emmanuel have his new life and she arrives unannounced in Hong Kong to take her rightful place as mistress of the house. Neither woman wants to share their home or their husband but neither is willing to give up their place as his wife and very quickly, life changes for all of those who live in the house.
Inspiredly the lives of his own ancestors, The House of Wives by Simon Choa-Johnston is a beautiful novel about two women who will do whatever it takes to secure a place for their children in the upper echelons of the British Crown colony.
There are many things that drew me to this book. First was the setting and the time period as they are both things I do not know much about or have read about. I was also drawn to the fact that this book is by a Canadian writer and it is the story of his ancestors, something for which he spent much time travelling and doing research. And the plot line of the two wives of one man living together in the same home was truly interesting. Everything that drew me to this book wrapped up into one truly lovely read.
I thought going into this book that I would feel an allegiance to one wife or the other. It just seems when you read the plot of this book that such a thing would happen, that you would want to pick one over the other and that you would want to dislike Emmanuel for putting the women into this situation. But there is so much depth to this book, so much to the story that you end up feeling allegiance to all of the characters. Even though this is a real life story based on his family history, you can see how much of the story Choa-Johnston had to craft and yet, how effortless it feels. All of the characters are well-developed and fully human, rather than just people on a page.
I learned so much from this book about a culture and time period that I haven't read much about, mainly the Jewish communities in India and the opium trade between India and China. The writing in this book is so beautiful and descriptive, the reading experience is so rich. I had read before I started reading that Choa-Johnston is a playwright and that is evident from the writing. A beautiful and interesting story.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House of Canada. The opinions expressed above are my own.