3 July 2016

Review #475: The House of Wives by Simon Choa-Johnston

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The thing about opium is that it makes pain or difficulty unimaginable.”

----Sebastian Faulks

Simon Choa-Johnston, a Canadian author, pens a heart-touching yet intense historical fiction, The House of Wives that narrates the story of three human souls, all connected by the trade and the aura of opium, where an opium merchant gets so blinded by the hunger to be a successful businessman that he drags the two most important people of his life into it, thus irking up a crossfire between those two individuals, until they all find peace to live together.


Two women compete for the affections of their opium merchant husband in a tale of friendship, fortune and rivalry in colonial Hong Kong.

In 1862, a young Jew from Calcutta named Emanuel Belilios leaves his dutiful wife Semah and sets sail for Hong Kong to make his fortune in the opium trade. There, he grows into a prosperous and respectable merchant, eventually falling in love with his Chinese business partner's daughter Pearl, a delicate beauty twenty years his junior. As a wedding present, he builds for her the most magnificent mansion in Hong Kong. Then Semah arrives unannounced from Calcutta to take her place as mistress of the house...and life will change irrevocably for all of them.

Inspired by the lives of Choa-Johnston's ancestors, The House of Wives is an unforgettable novel about the machinations of the early opium trade, and about two remarkable women determined to secure a dynasty for their children in the tumultuous British Crown colony.

Emanuel is a Jewish man who after the completion of his graduation, successfully lands himself up and guides himself to move towards the world of opium selling thereby earning a name as well as reputation in the society. And hence when an opportunity of marrying a rich Jewish businessman's daughter, Semah, with an overpriced dowry knocks up at the door, Emanuel grabs it immediately as he needs capital to take a voyage to Hong Kong where he will finally set up his opium trading business. Luckily for him, things get accordingly as his plan and Emanuel earns a name in the rich and aristocratic Jewish community in Calcutta. In one of his many Hong Kong trips, Emanuel falls head over heels in love with a Chinese young woman, Pearl, and he instantly marries her and welcomes her to a mansion built especially for her in Hong Kong, and within a few months too, Emanuel's first wife, Semah, too lands up in that very same mansion where he lives with his second wife, Pearl. Immediately an inevitable war of extreme hatred starts between the two women, and Emanuel must do something to stop his two wives from hating each other and not to mention, Emanuel is in dire need of a heir, but can these two women provide him?

The author has penned this book based on his grandfather's personal experience thereby telling an untold story that spans through so many decades. This story is mainly focused on opium selling and trading during the British era both in Calcutta, India and in Hong Kong, that which the readers are not much aware about, hence the author did a marvelous job in opening as well as enlightening the minds of the readers about this lesser known opium trade and its harmful yet alluring effects through this story. The book's cover image turns out to be quite enchanting for the eyes of the readers reflecting an irresistible aura through it.

The author's writing style is extremely expressive and eloquent as he laces the whole story with evocative emotions that holds the power to move the readers deeply. The narrative is poignant and interesting enough to keep the readers hooked into the story line till the very end, and not to mention, the dialogues are inspired from local dialect with its proper translation, thereby making the book an informative one for the readers. The story has a moderate pace, as there are so many layers that the author has depicted with so much detailing that will make the readers visualize those right before their own eyes. The story is told in third person POV from the three character's voice, and at the end of each chapter, the author has ended it with an unexpected twist, that will make the readers anticipate for the conclusion.

The backdrop is simply magical and striking that will instantly transport the readers both back in time and back to a destination. The story is set against the British ruled Calcutta in localities of Jews where they made their name and living in the society. The author has painted that portrait of Calcutta by vividly capturing its then streets filled with hand-pulled rickshaws, European fashion, English folks, the crowded alleys of hawkers shouting at the top of their lungs, business hungry Jews, and the Hoogly river thus reflecting an old yet rich Calcutta that local readers can easily relate to. The portrait of Hong Kong is splendidly arrested for the larger part of the story, with its traditional-styled palaces, to the then fashion, to its warm nature people to its politics to its finance to its landscapes, which will make the readers feel that authentic flair and aura through the author's words while reading this book. The timeline too is in perfect sync with the landscapes and the culture of both Calcutta and Hong Kong.

The characters are quite well-developed, as they are laced with multi-dimensions that are revealed by the author gradually with the course of the story. The characters have depth as they are supported by backstories, right from the very beginning of their childhood, that will make the readers easily comprehend with the characters' mindset. Emanuel is a man who is not only hard working but is way too ambitious that on his journey to achieve success and power that he forgets about the people who loves and cares about him, although his flaws are what makes him so interesting, on the other hand, Semah has forever yearned for love from her husband, but she rarely got it from him, yet she devoted her life towards him thus making her brave with a weakness in her heart. And lastly, Pearl is another such woman who despite of getting love from her husband, has always despised him as he allowed his first wife to share the same roof with her, her jealousy gave her a power that readers will find it intimidating about her. Yes, all three characters are not only flawed but has also undergone lot of struggles and challenges that will only make them look real in the eyes of the readers. Long after the end of the story, the readers will find it difficult to shake the three prominent and striking characters from their heads. The supporting characters are also well etched out.

The story is not only about opium trade, but is also about love and mostly about an unusual friendship that could not wither away even in the end when there was no perfect happy ending. The author portrays the bond of two wives with so much emotion, transition, challenges and shared motherhood that the readers are bound to feel a connection towards these two women.

In a nutshell, this intriguing book will compel the minds of all the historical fiction as well as the contemporary fiction readers, but I suggest, this is a must read heart-breaking yet exciting story that needs to be experienced by one and all.

Verdict: A poignant yet enlightening story about two wives and lots of opium between them.

Courtesy: Thanks to the author, Simon Choa-Johnston's publicist for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book. 

Author Info:
As a playwright, Simon was writer-in-residence at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2010 working on his new play Sisters that was selected for Factory Theatre’s Cross Currents Festival. Simon has written plays for the Arts Club Theatre; Gateway Theatre, Western Canada Theatre; Kaleidoscope Theatre; Youtheatre Montreal and the Lighthouse Festival. Amongst his numerous awards are: City of Richmond’s Cultural Leadership 2011, McMaster University Alumni Award, Winner, Theatre BC’s National Playwriting Competition, Canada 125 Medal for Arts and Tourism, and three Vancouver Jessie nominations for best Play.

Simon is the Artistic Director Emeritus of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, BC where he was Executive Director and Artistic Director from 2000-2012. While there he created Gateway’s Scene First play development program as well as commissioning and producing 15 premieres by B.C. writers for the Main Stage and Studio series. Additionally, he has toured shows to theatres in Kamloops, Kelowna, Nanaimo and Victoria.

Prior this he founded the Writers Workshop (London, Ontario); was Artistic Director of the Lighthouse Festival in Port Dover Ontario 1987-1994; Artistic Director at Press Theatre in St. Catharines 1977-1982; Resident Director at the Banff Centre, Assistant Director at the Stratford Festival, Staff Director at Toronto Arts Productions (Canadian Stage). He has directed over 200 professional productions in numerous theatres in Canada.

He has taught theatre and drama at the University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, Guelph University, University of Waterloo, Ryerson University, Dalhousie University and Sheridan College. 
Visit him here

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