Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

A House by the River

Sid Smith
Picador (April 2004) 262 pages
ISBN: 0 330 48124 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Sid Smith's style of writing is unusual. There is a dream-like quality to it which perfectly suits the story he has to tell. And it has a smoothness which is soothing and beguiling, so that it carries you along like the river which runs through this tale.

The story, too, is unusual—combining history, folk-lore, adventure, religion and magic, all in a Chinese landscape and culture with which Smith clearly feels comfortably at home.

John and Grace are two people whose childhood has been shaped by China.

John's father, an American lay preacher, had "dreamt of a great harvest in the Orient", but he had died on the way to China. John's mother, who had never wanted to go to China in the first place, was denied Mission funds to return home. So she found another way to get back, but she left baby John for the Mission women to rear. John's "substitute mother", Song Lan, was herself an orphan. With no-one to ensure she would not become a hungry ghost when she died, she had become the Mission amah, hoping that the Christian Father would look after her. Her gods remained Chinese gods, however, and she taught John a similar pantheism. Her Cantonese language, too, became John's mother tongue.

Growing up in the Holy Word Mission, John was taught to be a missionary. A marriage was arranged for him, and he was sent to teach the Word of God to the fisher-folk upriver of the Canton-Hong Kong estuary . It was to be the first inland mission from the Canton Mission House.

Grace, who accompanied her new husband to this small fishing settlement, was half Chinese. Her mother, the daughter of a London merchant, had fallen in love with the second son of a Chinese trader and married him. Her misery as a Chinese daughter-in-law, cut off from her family by distance and custom, was intense. "She ate two balls of opium with a glass of wine and died without pain". Grace, at the wishes of her English grandfather, was sent to live in the American Mission House, and was educated in its schoolrooms. She grew up to consider herself European, her looks and her language, however, remained partly Chinese.

The story of John and Grace and their lives meanders like the river. And, like the river, it has places of calm and places of turbulence and danger. It is the story, too, of the fisher-folk they live with; of authority wielded by autocratic self-serving officials far from the centre of government; of tribal and social conflicts; and of a shaman called Jivu Lanu.

Grace's intriguing interpretations of Chinese ideograms and her use of these to explain the Gospel in her missionary work, is one thread woven through this story. John's growing attachment to the Chinese spirits and his involvement with the spirit-haunted daughter of the village headman, is another. Chance separates Grace and John, then brings them together again. But Smith handles their story as if weaving it into an ancient map of the Chinese river by which they live.

The end of the book is as simply told as the rest of the story. In another book, one of different character to this one, it might seem like an anticlimax. Here, it is just another small detail on Smith's map of a river which changes slowly but which never ceases to flow.

A House by the River has a quiet charm which grows on you as you read it. It is a fine and most original book.


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