Deep Night

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 February, 2009, 12:00am

Deep Night

by Caroline Petit

Soho Press


It is 1941. Europe is heavily engaged in the second world war, Japan is at war with Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government and its National Revolutionary Army following the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 - and there are rumours in Hong Kong that Japan plans to invade.

Leah Kolbe, 23, runs her late father's antiques business from her home on The Peak and is planning to marry her solicitor fiance Jonathan Hawatyne. Despite taking precautions against possible Japanese invasion by shipping most of her collection to the US, her life goes on much as it did before: cue a colourful account of a particularly boozy party at The Peninsula, attended by Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, in which Hemingway challenges fellow bohemians to swig from a bottle of rice wine containing dead snakes. The party is about to come to an end for the revellers and Hong Kong.

On December 7 the Japanese navy bombs Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and the US and Britain declare war. Jonathan, a reservist, is called up by a message on the screen while watching a movie at a cinema with Leah; she is left to make plans to try to survive an imminent Japanese attack.

It is at about this time that an old friend, reporter Benjamin Eldersen, tries to recruit her to spy on a Japanese businessman, Tokai Ito, who earlier bought a rare Golden Age monochrome porcelain from her. She agrees to spy but never has the chance because on Christmas Day the Hong Kong government surrenders to Japan.

With the Japanese in control, Jonathan missing and food scarce, Leah decides to head for neutral Macau, buying herself an eventful passage on a fishing junk. Stranded in the Portuguese territory with no money and taken in by nuns, she eventually lands a job at the British consulate.

It is in Macau that Leah's life changes radically as she is forced to come to terms with the war and her place in it. Macau was, as Caroline Petit reminds us in her epilogue, 'the only place between Alaska and India where there was a European flag flying' in the 1940s. There are many shadowy characters taking advantage of its neutrality, including Ito, whom Leah was supposed to shadow in Hong Kong and two figures from her past: a Kuomintang spy known as Chang and Boris Harris, a self-seeking 'entrepreneur'. Leah recognises Harris as Vasiliev, a Russian she did business with in Petit's first novel, The Fat Man's Daughter. Caught between contacts and lovers, Leah's life becomes increasingly complicated and linked with the politics and vested interests of the war, fuelling the main drama of the novel's plot.

If Deep Night is a fascinating study of the war years in Hong Kong and Macau, it is also a compelling account of Leah's transition to womanhood and her maturing under extraordinary circumstances. Although her heart is always with her missing fiance, she uses her femininity to seduce her way ahead, whether flirtatiously with British consul Stephen Albemarle or in the flesh with her Japanese lover Ito.

Our heroine manages to avoid pregnancy by some stroke of luck, which is just as well because we learn she doesn't like children: 'They simply didn't interest her. She exited the room when people showed off their babies and small children ... they were messy, needy, boring things.'

If Leah had children it might also slow her down for a possible return in a third, anticipated, novel. Deep Night is a thrilling read.