The Rice Paper Diaries
Winner of Wales Book of the Year, English Language Fiction 2014
Francesca Rydderch has been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award 2014
This is a story of war told from the edges. Four interweaving accounts relate the intimate havoc wrought by military conflict on individual lives. It is spring 1940, and newly wed Elsa Jones is finding her way in Hong Kong’s ex-pat society. Lonely and homesick, she finds an ally in her amah Lin, who has travelled downriver from her native village in Canton, but their friendship is clouded by Lin’s own longing to be reunited with her young sister and the simpler life of her childhood. Hong Kong is changing by the day: soldiers appear on the streets and bomb shelters spring up around them, but, taken up by their own concerns, both Elsa and Lin fail to notice the darkening of the political landscape.
When Hong Kong falls to the Japanese, Elsa and her husband Tommy are captured and interned in a makeshift camp on the southern side of the island. Along with the rest of Hong Kong’s European elite, they have to knuckle down to the task of survival in hostile surroundings. As the internees settle into some kind of community on a rocky peninsula facing the South China Sea, Elsa and Tommy find their relationship tested to the limit. Ever optimistic, Tommy comes up with a plan to make the camp self-sufficient, but as the mental pressure of internment grows his personal crusade develops into an obsession so deep and dark that it becomes a prison of its own.
The final war story in this lyrical novel is the poignant tale of baby Mari. When we rejoin her in 1947 she is six years old, on her way home from the Far East to a village on the coast of Wales. Everyone tells her there is much to celebrate, not least victory and a return to the securities of the past. But for Mari camp life is all she has known. Her new home is a cold, strange place riddled with secrets which can only be decoded by eavesdropping on the broken, confusing exchanges between the adults around her. As we follow her desperate attempts to create a happy ending, we learn more about the tragedies as well as the joys of coming home.
"The Rice Paper Diaries is a stylish debut. Rhydderch writes beautifully, each sentence elegantly honed" – Suzy Ceulan Hughes, New Welsh Review
Francesca Rhydderch discusses the themes and inspiration behind The Rice Paper Diaries:
Review from Wales Arts Review
"The varying narrative perspectives of The Rice Paper Diaries – distinct sections are devoted to Elsa, her Chinese amah, Lin; her husband, Tommy; and her daughter, Mari – allow Rhydderch to track and explore these themes of home, itinerancy and exile across cultures and through individual, divergent lives... These narratives slot intricately together to form a powerful, undaunted and utterly convincing interleaved account of the life-altering impact and enduring personal consequences of the Japanese army’s invasion of Hong Kong in 1941... Rhydderch’s lucent, easy prose is judiciously alert to the distinctive beauty of place ... and yet she is also constantly watchful of the ubiquitous ugly reality of lived experience in the 1940s and beyond... Moreover, here, in essence, is a rare, brave and unforgettable novel..." Laura Wainwright For the full review: http://www.walesartsreview.org/the-rice-paper-diaries-by-francesca-rhydd...
Planet Magazine Review
A "Poignant and accomplished fist novel" – Stevie Davies, Planet Magazine
The Rice Paper Diaries New Welsh Review
“Suzy Ceulan Hughes enjoys a stylish debut of alienation and homecoming”
Enemy Aliens Report to Murray Ground. The Japanese military have sent out an order for enemy aliens to gather at Murray Parade Ground at 9.00 am on Monday 5th of January, 1942. All passports must be presented. Further details will be released shortly. ‘Who are the enemy aliens?’ I said. ‘Us?’ Lam asked the English men. ‘No,’ said the one who had given us the newspaper. ‘It means us.’
Set partly in 1940s Hong Kong and the Japanese Stanley Internment Camp, Francesca Rhydderch’s debut novel tells he story of a young Welsh woman from New Quay who emigrates to Hong Kong with her husband Tommy, a sea captain in the customs service. The Rice Paper Diaries is a novel of love and betrayal, but it also about a study of alienation, displacement and the importance of home.
Leaving her beloved older sister Nannon behind her in New Quay, Elsa finds herself an alien among aliens, the only Welsh woman in an expat community which is far too busy drinking champagne at the Peninsula Hotel and gambling on the horses at the Jockey Club to heed the warnings of approaching war. When Else tells her new Hong Kong friends about the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd, she quickly realises that the English expat sophisticates are laughing at her, not with her. Her sense of difference is intensified when she loses her first child at birth. Elsa withdraws into herself, finding solace only in letters from Nannon and the quiet friendship she strikes up with Lam, the young Chinese woman who is employed to keep her company in her grief. Lam has come to Hong Kong from her father’s smallholding on the Pearl River Delta. She is secretly dating a Canadian serviceman and is hoping he will marry her and take her back to Canada. For Lam, home is not where she has come from; it is where she is hoping to go. She takes Elsa to visit her aunt and uncle, who are tailors. They make Else a totemic dress that strengthens her sense of connection to Nannon, who is also a seamstress, and to her new ‘home’ in Hong Kong, but which also increases her alienation within the expat community, who fear she is ‘going native’.
Fabrics and textures are a recurring motif as Rhydderch draws on a variety of narrative voices and techniques to shape her story. The narrative is deftly paced, with a precision and detachment that give an otherworldly quality to the characters’ experiences. Following the loss of her child, Elsa appears to be walking through a dream. The tone becomes remote, reflecting her incomprehension and sense of disconnectedness. The narrative is taken up by Lin, Lam’s younger sister, who comes to Hong Kong to me amah to Elsa and Tommy’s second child Mari. Lin is homesick and confused by her displacement. The only way she can make sense of it all is to ask the street scribe Wei to write it down for her in the form of letters home. At the same time, she captures the sense of disorientation and disbelief in a community taken unawares by the sudden Japanese occupation. The streets are littered with bodies, shops are looted and homes are broken into. The ‘aliens’ ordered to report to Murray Parade Ground are taken from there to Stanley Internment Camp.
Life at the camp is described by Tommy in entries from his logbook. This is perhaps the hardest narrative form for any author to pull off convincingly. There is a huge amount of accurate historical detail here, which is difficult to convey credibly in diary form. But what is chillingly conveyed is the real Tommy, the man who is hiding behind the smile and good manners, and whom Elsa has married for better or for worse. There is a part of the story I must not reveal, the pivotal betrayal. But you are allowed to know that Elsa returns to New Quay and that she and Nannon become towering presences – strong, resilient women who are willing to break the rules and defy convention, though not for the simple sake of it.
Inspired by the experiences of Rhydderch’s great-aunt, The Rice Paper Diaries is a stylish debut. Rhydderch writes beautifully, each sentence elegantly honed. There is a fierce intellect at work, experimenting with narrative voice and form, and interweaving fact, fiction and historical data. But it is when Rhydderch brings her characters home to Wales that her writing begins to soar. Freed of the rigorous of portraying historical events and behaviours in a foreign environment, the narrative flows in a familiar environment. The homecoming is perhaps not just for Elsa, but for the author too.
Suzy Ceulan Hughes for the New Welsh Review