John H. Manhold
Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine, ISBN 9787770061257, Three Clover Press, 281 pages, Paperback by Lloyd Lofthouse – an ARC “uncorrected proof for limited distribution.”
Our Hart is the follow-up to Lofthouse’s multiple award-winning novel, My Splendid Concubine, and follows the life and career of Sir Robert Hart, the Irishman who became world respected as the guiding light for the growth of China during the latter half of the 19th century. It is a historical novel in the finest tradition, where one cannot be sure what is real and what is fiction. The tale begins in 1857, three years after his arrival in China and shortly after the death of the sister of Ayaou, his concubine. The story continues with the gradual growth of the protagonist in his ability to understand the processes and patterns of thought of the Chinese mentality, and to use them, along with his highly analytical mind, to put them to use for the good of the Chinese people. This growth progresses from his early beginnings as a British customs officer through his gradual rise to Inspector General of the Chinese Customs and confident of the ruling overseers of the young emperor.
The plight of the Chinese people in numerous situations is fully described, many incidents of history are presented from the standpoint of Hart’s activity, the characters are interesting, and many are ‘fleshed out’ so as to gain truly lifelike proportions. And underlying all, is a most unconventional, and poignant, love story.
As a former practicing member of the health professions, a single mention of one small factor is troublesome to me (but probably will not be to any other reader). Fairly early in the book there is mention of the fact that Hart had syphilis. Hart left home, where his father was a minister, because of his heavy drinking and insatiable desire for sexual activity that supposedly resulted in his acquisition of the disease. The fact is not again mentioned, and Hart apparently retained his health and mental acuity well into his later years. I do not know much about the real person and do not know whether such a diagnosis was made, or if so, whether it could have been a misdiagnosis, or if somehow he avoided the usual deterioration that ensues. Because the condition was mentioned, however, I expected some result from the fact, which did not occur. (As an aside, I want readers of this review to understand that my mention of this single phrase is a minor, and perhaps inconsequential, consideration in reading the book. The comment is for the author to think about in that I have received, and am reviewing a limited distribution, uncorrected, draft that is provided for this purpose.).
In summary. I should like to say that Lloyd Lofthouse has written a follow-up to his multiple award winning My Splendid Concubine, that would seem destined to follow its predecessor in acclaim. Perhaps I am prejudiced in that I thoroughly enjoy historical fiction and am particularly enamored of any volume that also provides me with large amounts of historical fact. Regardless, I should suggest Our Hart is a book that readers will find so intriguing as to be hard to put down.