Noble House (James Clavell)

Ignore the “New York Times Bestseller” blurb on the cover. That is like an Oscar. Very annoying and no guarantee of quality. (But this is a good novel, despite the New York Times endorsing it) It’s rare for a book of this size to maintain its pace, but this one manages it. A great business novel with a large cast of larger than life characters from governors to coolies in the cauldron that is Hong Kong. The plot twists and turns with many unexpected turns and stories within stories. The characters themselves are far removed from anyone I have ever met and operate in a moral framework that is utterly alien. Yet one can’t help but sympathize with them as every one of them goes about achieving their own aims with ruthless rationality.

Set in Hong Kong, 1963, Noble House (Asia Saga #4) is another of James Clavell’s epic soap operas, replete with all the drama, romance, lust, greed, and intrigue that make soap opera so compelling. With the extra added attraction of some very colourful character names and dialogue. At a deeper level this book also represents Clavell’s political philosophy. Hong Kong is depicted as a Capitalist experiment in the backyard of the expanding Communism of the 1960s. Capitalists of different shades from the responsible to the robber baron variety are shown in the background of a culture where greed is seen as almost a virtue.

The depiction of the Soviets is to a certain extent stereotypical. This was written in the 80s when nobody expected how rapidly the Soviet Union could collapse. The Chinese are shown to be utterly enigmatic yet totally rational. The story is somewhat dated, but still effective. While some aspects of the story may not hold together in 2018, Noble House is an accurate presentation of what it was like in Hong Kong in the 60’s: the seamy side of floating Chinese culture existing comfortably beside high rises and billionaires, the rampant sexism suffered by women and the politics of the Vietnam war driving everything. His main characters are satisfyingly multi-layered, but so are his minor ones now that I think of them.

There is no black and white, but vibrant shades of gray. I’m a huge fan of Clavell. Oh, I know he isn’t perfect but nobody but nobody can weave plots and subplots like he can. There must be 30 going at the same time and you can actually follow them. This is the story of Hong Kong begun more than 300 years earlier in “Shogun.” The interweaving of the Chinese and European cultures and how they view each other is the fascination with Clavelle’s books.

The story line focuses on several of the large trading houses that have operated in Hong Kong since the 19th century. These `hongs’ or companies are fiercely competitive, with the richest one holding the title of `noble house.’ At present, the noble house is Struan’s, headed by Ian Dunross, a great-grandson of the founder, Scottish privateer Dirk Struan. Most of the Chinese who inhabit the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong are Cantonese, whose ancestors left the city of Canton (now Guangzhou) on mainland China. They are essentially a servant class to the Anglos like Dunross, although many are quite wealthy in their own right.

The whole saga is complex and filled with exceptionally well-drawn characters…ethnic Haklo fishermen who appear poor but have made millions in the stock market…wealthy Americans who arrive to make deals they hope will give them entree to Asian markets…spies for both Nationalist and Communist China as well as the Soviet Union…Chinese strivers who are chambermaids by day and gamblers by night…prostitutes…social climbers…mixed race Eurasians caught between two worlds…scions… bastards…pampered children…heroes and villains. Somehow, Clavell manages to mix all of these characters into a swift moving and captivating plot that will hold an intelligent readers’ attention throughout the 1400 pages.


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