"...Open for business like a cheap bordello..."

The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure by Adam Williams BEWARE: Here be spoilers!

Adam Williams’ first novel (written during weekends and holidays over the last five years) is a sweeping, lengthy - 700 pages almost exactly - story telling of the experiences of a group of European missionaries and businessmen in a fictional town in north China immediately before, during and after the Boxer uprising in 1900.

One of the most affecting, and certainly thought-provoking, books I’ve read in some time, Palace powerfully portrays the consequences of cultural superiority at the uncomfortable interface of ancient Chinese culture and the ‘modern’ European ways of technology, as each group openly views the other as ‘barbarian’. Williams says much about tradional approaches to Christian mission (not all bad, by the way), and about suffering and sacrifice: his scenes of mass execution as missionaries are martyred are humbling and moving.

The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure of the title is the town brothel, run by a vicious madam and her sadistic son, where the rich and the powerful meet to play and do business. Here, as well, is where one of the central themes of the book dealt with most openly: the medical missionary’s black and white Christian morality comes up against the local Mandarin’s honourable but ultimately self-serving pragmatism as the price the Mandarin demands for conveying the remaining small group to safety is an hour alone with a certain pregnant young Englishwoman. The clash of cultures is brought down from academic consideration to an issue of life and death for the doctor, his wife and children, and the unborn baby.

Williams’ prose is not always the most skillful, and he occasionally gets bogged down in unnecessarily lengthy descriptive passages, but as a man whose family has been in China for generations (his great-grandfather having been a medical missionary in China at the time this story is set) and who lives and works there himself, he displays the country and life there in vivid colour and clarity.

His characters are intriguing mix: most of the ‘baddies’ are quite two-dimensional, but almost all of the ‘goodies’ are much more complex. For example, the Mandarin himself is primarily self-serving, concerned with himself and his position, yet risks both to save the lives of his philosophical sparring partner and his family. Henry Manners, the semi-hero of the piece is anything but virtuous, yet still a sympathetic character. And even though the Boxers are drafted as villains, Williams’ makes clear their motivation in a way that leaves plenty of room for sympathy.

It’s not all high-brow philosophising, though. Palace is also a gripping story of action and romance and good old-fashioned swashbuckling that should translate very well to the rumoured film and/or mini-series. Apparently he’s even writing a sequel, although how well the surviving characters will stand up without the dramatic historical backdrop is open to question. I’ll wait and see.

(BTW, the post title hasn’t really got anything to do with the book. It’s just the first quote that came to mind that had to do with a brothel!)