Kitty Fane is the beautiful but shallow wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. Unsatisfied by her marriage, she starts an affair with charming, attractive and exciting Charles Townsend. But when Walter discovers her deception, he exacts a strange and terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to his new posting in remote mainland China, where a cholera epidemic rages….
What is it about love and cholera? They seem popular bedfellows in literature. Irrelevant observations aside though, I never used to be one for love stories and I thought I would have to knock this one on the head pretty early on as it was full of the sort of characters I don’t have time for. Saying that though, in its favour it is another book from the Vintage range and was recommended to me, so I carried on.
‘Glad is he, the man who carries on’, is probably a phrase that someone somewhere has uttered before (probably Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid, the original one, you can’t beat the 80’s) and it was spot on in this case. Although to start with my sadistic side came out in full force, wanting bad things to happen to all the utterly shallow and foolish characters, I found myself warming to some of them and thoroughly falling in love with the book.
For a novel weighing in at 140 grams and consisting of 220 pages a lot happens, less so in terms of the amount of plot progression but a lot more on the character development of Kitty, through her trials, her history and the grinding of life’s tests through to a satisfactory conclusion which happily avoids a few of the hinted at possibilities scattered throughout the text.
Set in colonial china the story is very much of its time and shows the class divisions and the views of the British of its colonial citizens. Portrayed in honest brutality by Maugham, he also fuses this with a forthright take on human nature and the chaos and fate of life. To say there is a sunny outlook would be a blatant lie.
Maugham’s writing is one of those slightly strange styles, like that of Dickens, that usually mean that the odd time I had to read a couple of sentences over again as they didn’t quite work the first time but it doesn’t break the flow much, as it’s fantastically written and there are some wonderful parts that demand to be reread. Ultimately you get into the habit of taking your time over each page sinking into the prose like Cleopatra in asses milk.