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