On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne – knowing where to draw the line

“If you want to know how you’ve done in life, tell your eighteen-year-old self in the mirror whether you have disappointed him or lived up to his expectations”.

For much of this novel, narrator Adrian Gyle clearly falls into the former category. After years spent in Hong Kong chasing trivial news stories, he appears cynical, unattached, often too hungover to pursue a lead as he drifts towards the inevitable point when his editor’s patience finally snaps.

It was not always so. In his youth, feeling socially out of place at Cambridge, he made an unlikely friendship with another outsider from a very different background: Jimmy Tang, son of a vastly wealthy Hong Kong business family, who inspired him to share the challenge of translating classical Chinese poetry into English.

Following the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, life has changed abruptly, as the new authoritarian regime sets about dismantling democracy, sparking increasingly violent street battles as the police crack down on student demonstrators. One of these is Rebecca To, Jimmy Tang’s latest extra-marital lover, whose activities create the threat of reprisals from those in power against both her own wealthy family and his.

So this forms the basis for a topical thriller with a strong sense of place, Lawrence Osborne being a travel writer as well as a novelist. Yet it may disappoint those expecting suspense and action, since the most dramatic incidents tend to occur offstage, fail to materialise or leave the reader uncertain as to whether a particular crime has actually been committed at all. The author seems more interested in the dynamics of a long friendship between two very different men linked by a few common interests and shared memories. His aim is to explore the varied moral positions that individuals or groups take to particular issues and situations.

Having been very impressed by a recent reading of “The Forgiven”, I did not find the descriptions of Hong Kong as striking as those of Morocco, but maybe the latter simply lends itself to this. Perhaps years spent as a “nomad” observing people in different countries accounts for the distance which the author creates between us and his characters, so that one does not care too much about them. This mattered for me in the case of Jimmy Tang and Rebecca To who seem quite thinly developed. The “inverted” nature of this novel results in, for instance, Jimmy’s long-suffering wife and Rebecca’s father appearing more authentic despite being minor characters. The focus on a few exceptionally wealthy, good-looking people, with no opportunity missed to display a knowledge of fine wine gave the serious theme a shallow quality. Admittedly, the dilemma facing influential Hong Kong Chinese who have a lot to lose if they risk dissent needs to be understood.

Displaying the bones of an excellent novel, I was left disappointed when the plot slips away to a bland conclusion.

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