The occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese during World War II has been widely chronicled as exceedingly brutal. In The Harbour, that period in history is brought to life—and soberingly so—by Francesca Brill. This is her debut work of fiction, but Brill’s background as a screenwriter and filmmaker influences her dramatic prose, which is written in short, Hemingwayesque sentences and full of visual, visceral details that carry the reader from the hedonistic orgies before the 1941 invasion all the way through to the irrevocable damage of the post-war days.
We see this disintegration through the eyes of an American journalist. Punch-drunk on the expatriate experience, Stevie Steiber frequents Hong Kong’s tea houses, floating opium dens and horse-racing nights. Her lover, the debonair Jishang, is a member of the Chinese intelligentsia who founds a subversive pro-Communist magazine. Meanwhile, Harry Field, a British major with Japanese sympathies, has been tasked with looking into politically rebellious activity within the colony. As Jishang’s colleague and confidante, Field eyes Stevie as a source. But Field’s investigation goes awry as both spy and target are overcome by lust and love; despite their differences, they end up entangled in a complicated love affair. As the Japanese troops draw closer and finally descend upon the colony, loyalties are tested, relationships become strained and graphic violence is inevitable.
Brill handily crafts an intricate network of sympathetic characters operating on all sides of the battle, torn apart and thrown together in turns as wartime communication becomes strained and difficult and the frivolous parties of the past become a distant memory. Steiber’s struggles navigating her enemy-ridden city are the most salient, but through Harry’s eyes we get glimpses of the true horrors of POW life. As readers and, given the almost cinematic narrative, spectators as well, we are able to bear witness to the atrocities committed not only by the Japanese but by other parties as well, challenging our preconceived notions of who the villains really are. But more than complicating simplistic dichotomies like good and evil or fidelity and betrayal, The Harbour reminds us that, in times of crisis, gratuitous excess gets boiled down to a universal mandate of basic survival. The novel’s title refers to Victoria Harbour, the waterway that serves as the physical epicenter of Hong Kong. But it also alludes to the idea of “safe harbor,” of shelter, security and self-preservation—and just how elusive those emotional benchmarks can be.