It doesn’t matter how often the fact is complained of, the war in the East has never had the attention of the Western front or North Africa or the Atlantic, certainly not for the British. While we know about El Alamein or the sinking of the Bismark or Arnhem, we don’t know much about what happened where in the Orient, other than that we let Singapore go without a fight and the horrors of the Burma Road. At least, I don’t.
Before reading The Harbour, I don’t think I’d ever given a thought to what had happened to Hong Kong. Turns out it was pretty bloody awful and similar to what happened to much of China during the Japanese invasion.
Hong Kong was attacked eight hours after Pearl Harbour, on 8 December 1941. The British surrendered on Christmas Day. In the following three year an estimated 10,000 Hong Kong Chinese women were raped by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese did not behave well.
All this is very much in the novel. We are spared little of the obscenities of war, but actually The Harbour is a love story of a particularly moving kind. Perhaps it takes its power partly from being based on the truth. The lovers are people from very different worlds - on the one hand a kind of proto-feminist American reporter who eschews convention wherever she finds it, and on the other a British intelligence officer, with a passion for Japanese culture.
Further plot I shall not divulge. It must suffice to say that the book is written with terrific authority and verve, with not a cliché in sight and anything stinking of the sentimental banished to the outer territories. Despite this, I was reduced to tears on several occasions.
What is more, it also happens to be an adventure story.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Harbour by Francesca Brill