“The Russian Concubine” is set in 1928 when Lydia Ivanova and her mother have escaped Bolshevik Russia and eke out an existence in the International Settlement in Junchow, China. A pocket of British rule that protects neither from the ongoing battles and manoeuvres of the strictures of colonial rule, triads, communists and the corrupting influence of opium. It’s a sumptuous backdrop for a coming of age story, which tests the strength of first love to its limits.
There are a few niggles. A wife-beating official is one dimensional and fades conveniently quickly when challenged by a sixteen-year-old, who fails to use the threat of her journalist stepfather. Lydia is always rescued, which diminishes the dramatic tension when she is kidnapped and tortured as we know she will be rescued again. Kate Furnivall briefly intrudes when Lydia, who has been captured, tortured and is about to face more torture, is specifically made to think that her nakedness doesn’t bother her as she’s forced to face her fully-dressed male torturers. No male characters have the luxury of thinking likewise, since they’re too focused on hunger, pain, humiliation and how to escape. We are constantly reminded of Chang An Lo’s bereavements and losses so that we forgive the violence he shows towards his (and Lydia’s) enemies.
Despite the predictability of the plot, “The Russian Concubine” is a good read. Chang An Lo will remain loyal and Lydia will triumph because readers want they to. Kate Furnivall’s writing is descriptive, conjuring up the atmospheres of 1920s China, drawing out the contrasts between rich and poor and the cultural differences between nationalities, but she knows when to drop description in favour of plot. The plot is well-paced and credible. Lydia, credibly, maintains a mixture of child naivety with adult logic that matches her teenage years.