A Caribbean delight

Pao

Kerry Young

Bloomsbury, £7.99;

Ebook: (Europe/USA) $3.78

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

If they are to hold a reader’s attention, novels written in pidgin English need to tell an absorbing story and be a rank at least better than merely good. In both aspects this captivating debut novel, succeeds with aplomb. Recounted in a highly developed first-person narrative that quickly attains the rhythm of a fine prose-poem, it is fast-paced, vibrant in its descriptive prowess, and richly atmospheric.

In 1938, 14-year-old Yang Pao arrives in Jamaica, accompanied by his mother and older brother. Their passage from Guangzhou has been arranged by Zhang, a friend of Pao’s late father and a gangster in control of Kingston’s Chinatown. Zhang is a serious but benevolent man and schools the boy as his successor, steeping him in the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’. And as heir, by aptitude and inclination, to his “uncle’s” empire, Pao’s road to maturity is a rocky, exciting and ultimately successful one.

Spanning a sizable chunk of the 20th century, and playing out against the backdrop of a nation in the throes of great change, the novel has many endearing facets. Every character has a role to play, a reason for being, yet in a clever literary trick, we see them only as Pao does, not necessarily as who they truly are. The best of these are fully developed and extraordinarily vivid, particularly Gloria, the prostitute he loves, protects and should have married; Fay, the woman he does marry, for reasons of business, and who breaks his heart; and the children he has with both of these women. And Pao himself is so well-defined that even through the patois narrative we conceive him as utterly real and wise in the ways of human nature. Unschooled but highly intelligent, ill-versed in expressing his emotions but driven in subtle, relentless ways to do good, he considers himself a man with sins too great for any God to forgive. He is flawed, and at times callous and even brutal. Yet with Sun Tzu his constant touchstone, he is also possessed of an astonishing depth of understanding and acceptance. Even horrific acts are met and considered with tolerance and calm, and dealt with accordingly. Such clear-eyed perspective is what allows him to build and secure his empire, and what forces him to resist the pull of his own needs and happiness.

In this esteemed debut, Miss Young has written a Caribbean delight, a rich, flavoursome saga that achieves the stunning storytelling feat of depicting a character’s entire life from childhood to old age. As a treatise of human nature, morality and self-worth, in its blurring of the lines between cultures and its consideration of how this impacts on the multiracial cast of characters, Pao deserves considerable admiration.


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