Towards Forgiveness: Sino-Tasmanian Stories From Two Islands
by John Biggs
Two islands, two centuries, and just under 200 pages of shared personal relationships between Hong Kong and Tasmania.
That's the big idea behind the collection of short stories in Towards Forgiveness, a book that can be assimilated just as swiftly during a layover at Kingsford Smith airport as during a wait for the 3am ferry to Discovery Bay.
The book gets off to a promising start with some colonial-era cross-dressing, a road not taken since Australian author Peter Carey put Ned Kelly's outlaw dad, Red, in a tiered skirt and sent him off into the bush on a horse.
It's 1845 and Matthew Parker of Elizabeth Street, Hobart town, is establishing an emporium that will support him and his dear Eliza. But Eliza remains far beyond reach, 16,000 kilometres away in the English parish of Letchworth.
To help out with the business, Matthew has enlisted the services of young Joshua Wilson, who has large dark eyes that 'reflect yellow splashes of light' and, when outfitted in an ivory-coloured dress, is a dead ringer for the Letchworth maiden. For all his physical virtues, Joshua has some anger management issues that are the undoing of more than one admirer.
Fast-forward 170 or so years and Cornlin Holdings tycoon Cornelius Leung is found naked and dead with a bullet in his head in an upscale Hong Kong hotel room. The bullet was an abrupt end for a man who had long been a business survivor.
But while Cornelius might have yearned over the years for his beautiful dead wife, he had quite a history as a financial predator. And only one woman with a Harvard business degree knows what a marauder he really was.
These are just two of the 11 stories that traverse the decades and geography between the two islands. They go back and forth between the tin mines of Emu Flat, the leafy homes of Pok Fu Lam, the tower blocks of North Point, and the waterfront of Hobart. The plots roll along and they take the reader into some fresh settings.
But overall, the stories feel as if they are still in their romantic adolescence. There is room left to explore the links between each island and the mainland, along with the everyday grit that makes a lasting cross-cultural relationship.
A section of Wok au Vin does stand out. Here, Tasmanian Jim McBride finds a Cantonese-inspired solution to his gluggy version of a French dish. Until chef Mei-yuk and her husband Harold Murchison moved into the house next door at Blackmans Bay, Jim's Golden Wattle Cookery Book approach had yielded only a winey chickeny mess. Then he learns the secret of a touch of baking soda and cooking ingredients separately.
They're tricks worth trying at home but, alas, Jim finds out too late that he may have bitten off a bit too much more than he can chew.
Towards Forgiveness is a book that can be judged by its cover. If the title appeals, then its content probably will too.