I’ve read this novel three or four times. My edition is published by Eland Publishing who were “founded in 1982 to revive great travel books which had fallen out of print”. They’ve since expanded their publications and state that they house an “unrivalled collection of books about the world and its societies. The titles explore the magic of our cultures, their humour, their common humanity and their inspiring differences”.
This book is written in diary and letter format, which works well for understanding the main character. Mary’s original naivety at the world provides a sharp contrast to the cunning folk around her. It provides a critical look at the expectations of British women to travel the world to marry a stranger in a far-flung part of the world and set up as a colonial couple. Mary Mackenzie sets out on the SS Mooldera, in the early 20th Century to meet up with her husband-to-be, Richard Collingsworth, who lives in Peking. They have a loveless marriage, where she tries to understand him he has no interest in her and has very set ways, for example setting up his army cot in the house to sleep in on his own. Despite the loveless marriage, Mary has a daughter with Richard, but when she takes a step towards grabbing a fleeting slice of happiness in her life, she finds herself propelled into a new life. She is shunned and discarded and even finds that her mother disowns her. She is left with no option but to leave her daughter with Richard, and she sets off for Tokyo.
It would be a spoiler to share the event/catalyst that led Mary to move to Tokyo. While she is free of the expectations of the expatriate community and her husband in Peking, Mary seems the perpetual outsider, which is inherently sad when it comes to a character so open-minded and sympathetic.
Oswald Wynd has written one of my favourite female characters. Mary navigates issues of gender inequality and an unfamiliar culture, and there’s a period in which she thrives in one aspect of her life, and despite her life continuing to be difficult she picks herself up after every setback.
The story takes place after the Boxer Rising in China, amidst the rumblings of the Russo-Japanese War. As the story progresses, further events affect Mary’s life, including World War Two.