The Pure Land by Alan Spence Canongate, HK$225 The Pure Land by Scottish novelist, poet and playwright Alan Spence is a fictional interpretation of the life story of merchant Thomas Glover, who, as a 21-year-old, travelled from his native Scotland to Shanghai and then Nagasaki. Working first for Jardine Mathieson, Glover later established his own company and dealt in everything from tea to rice, fish, cotton, silk, arms, ships, gold and opium. His relationship with a courtesan - Maki Kaga, who bears his son, Shinsaburo, in secret and later reluctantly gives up the child to Glover and his wife, Tsuru - is said to be the inspiration behind Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, but Spence gives this familiar story an alternative ending. Beginning in the devastation and desolation of the Nagasaki of 1945, the novel travels back to Aberdeen of 1858, then traces 100 years of the lives of Glover and then his son, Tomisaburu, in Nagasaki, Shanghai, Edo, Kagoshima and Tokyo. On Glover's arrival in Nagasaki, Jardine Mathieson's Ken Mackenzie wryly warns him not to cross the samurai, to keep out of politics and to 'mind where you dip yer wick', three pieces of advice that, over the following years, Glover will seem to systematically ignore, making enemies and friends among the samurai, enraging the British authorities, becoming a key protagonist in efforts to overthrow the shogunate, and marrying two Japanese women. The dust-jacket promises 'a heartbreaking love story' and the cover picture of a woman suggests its key themes are love and loss, with Glover's relationship with Maki as the centrepiece. But these themes are largely overshadowed by those of adventure, commerce and the clash of cultures as Japan encounters traders from Europe and the US, and struggles inwardly with the path to industrialisation. The book's main focus is really Glover's relationships with other men - traders, British government officials and Japanese clan leaders, including Chosu samurai Ito Hirobumi, who will become the country's prime minister. The female characters and the love story seem to gain some dimension only in the closing chapters. Initially, the women are thinly characterised, barely visible and existing only as archetypes: maiden, crone and whore. Although Spence's writing is largely effortless and unselfconscious, the sexual encounters are awkwardly rendered, the coy language giving them a sense of unreality, sometimes even a coarseness the language seems to be trying to avoid. There's an infuriatingly unlikely scene where Maki is instantly aroused by the sight of a tiger in a cage. Some of the symbols and metaphors seem too obvious, too forced, too twee ... dolphins on his departure, butterflies on arrival; his talismans - a paper butterfly, a bamboo token, a silver coin; Mount Fuji swathed in mist as a symbol of the mystery of an exquisite but inscrutable Japan. But all in all it's a ripping yarn, depicting an era long gone yet still strangely contemporary, packed with hubris, avarice and covetousness; ignorance and stupidity; honour and betrayal; disembowlings, beheadings, drownings and bombardments. And at its centre, Thomas Glover, whose courage, at least, is undeniable. 'Are ye no feared?' 'Of course I'm feared. But that's no reason not to go.'