Written from three character’s points of view, and first conceived in the form of a play, as the author explains in his note at the end, The House of Wives is an attempt by the Canadian author, Simon Choa Johnston, to retrace his ancestry, most notably of his Jewish great-grandfather who had set sail in 1860 from Calcutta to sell a huge consignment of Patna AAA grade Opium (known to be the best in the world), which he bought at a British auction house, to Hong Kong, and return rich, a fate he couldn’t immediately achieve due to an already overcrowded market, but which brought him in contact with a Chinese man and a mulatto of Macau-nese & Portuguese ancestry, together with whom he built a huge opium trading business south of Hong Kong.
The story told from the point of view of this man, Emanuel Belilious, the protagonist, is interspersed with those of Semah, his lawfully wedded wife in Calcutta, and Pearl, the second, much younger wife that he acquires in Hong Kong. When Semah arrives in Hong Kong fearing for her husband’s fidelity, she ends up sharing the same house with her husband and his Chinese wife, Pearl. This is the meatiest part of the story that focusses on their convoluted relationship and the emotional turmoil the three people had to undergo as they are caught in a love triangle. The frustrating equation forces the woman to outdo each other in their eagerness to get pregnant with a male heir as they scream and moan at the top of their lungs for the other to hear in her quarters night after agonizing night. The situation gets more intricate as both of them eventually get pregnant, one with a boy and the other with a girl. After this, the story gathers momentum and reads like a fast-paced historical thriller. There’s murder, greed, revenge and finally heartbreak.
Emanuel is an intense character who is driven more by instinct than careful planning, a dry man with limited or rather obtuse sexual urges, who has a bloated middle, and whose ambition to become rich stems from his desire to prove a point to his father who doubts his capabilities and trusts his more-handsome brother. Semah’s backstory is powerful but she comes across as a tepid person, unemotional and unaccommodating, though artistic. Pearl on the other hand, is sure-footed and spirited, attributes considered unwomanly during the period the story is set.
It’s hard to write a book that dovetails fiction with nonfiction and yet this book is atmospheric, absorbing and overflows with life in the manner that it transports the reader to the period from 1860-1880. But I will have to thank my stars for reading it beyond page 70, until which point I thought the narrative dragged. The reason could have been the three points of views or the unnecessary detailing of Emanuel’s early life in Calcutta. That said, I got lucky and ended up enjoying this book.
4 stars. Order The House of Wives from Amazon here.