The novel alternates between Hong Kong in the 1950's - essentially Claire and Will's story - and Hong Kong during and just before WWII. The real focus of the story is this period with Claire and Will's story essentially becoming a vehicle through which the story of Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion is told. In addition to learning the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war, we learn about Will's relationship with Trudy Liang, daughter of Shanghai millionaire and a Portuguese beauty. Trudy is a beauty herself and immediately captivates Will with her zest for life and her bubbly personality. The two enjoy the glamor of pre-war Hong Kong attending fabulous parties and generally living the high life. This high life, however, is not devoid of the class discrimination that marks colonialism. Many of the British living in Hong Kong look down on Trudy because she is "mixed" with an Asian father and European mother.
At times, Trudy seems superficial and just a "good time girl" but as the novel progresses, Trudy reveals more and more of herself. For example:
There is something sad about a woman who feels she must constantly adjust herself to the expectations of those around her to the point that she hardly knows herself. I found Trudy to be the most fascinating character in this book - especially since I alternated between pitying and hating her. Her character is very layered and the author gradually divulges more and more about her as the story progresses. Trudy and Will form the center of this story with each of the other characters playing a supporting role but there are interesting twists with the other characters as their lives intersect throughout the novel.
I've always known, my love, that I was a chameleon. I was a terrible daughter because my father let me be one . . . And I was a good daughter when my mother was around. Because she couldn't imagine anything else. And then when I was older, I was a different person each year depending on who I was with. If I was with a scoundrel, then I would be the type of woman that would be with a scoundrel. If I was with an artist, then I became a muse. And when I was with you, I was, for the first time, I'm sure people have told you, a decent human being . . . But now circumstances have changed and I have reverted back to form and become a woman who is with somebody because it suits her situation and for no other reason than that simple and venal one.
This novel is beautifully written and haunting - I found myself thinking about the characters but especially about the atrocities committed during the war long after I finished the book. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Orlagh Cassidy. Cassidy is an excellent narrator and made the book easy to listen to and let the beautiful prose shine through.