Review from Historical Novel Society (May 2010)
http://historicalnovelsociety.org/hnr-online.htm OUR HART
Lloyd Lofthouse, Three Clover Press, 2009, $15.95, pb, 281pp, 9780981955315
Lloyd Lofthouse prefaces Our Hart, the sequel to his novel My Splendid Concubine, with a transcription of the plaque inscribed to Sir Robert Hart in Shanghai, which informs us that he was, among other things, “Inspector General of the Chinese Customs, Founder of the Chinese Lighthouse Service, Organizer and Administrator of the National Post Office, Trusted Counselor of the Chinese Government.”
Readers who missed My Splendid Concubine will be grateful for the information, since Our Hart hits the ground running and only reprises that earlier novel in quick asides. Queen Victoria ’s Foreign Office attached his services in China as a young man, and he spent the latter half of the 19th century there, culminating in a long stretch as Inspector-General of Foreign Customs. But Our Hart is a far cry from an official biography: this is a novel of love—not only the love of a woman (which Hart finds in China in the person of Ayaou, the concubine of the first book’s title), but the love of a country. From the beginning, Hart feels this love for China , though he initially has a hard time convincing the Chinese.
To put it mildly, he goes on to prove this. He sees his administration through upheavals, social turmoil, the Boxer Rebellion, and all the other spasms by which China stumbled into the 20th century, and by the climax of one such scene late in the book, Hart travels with an extensive bodyguard and must admonish Chinese soldiers not to kneel to him. By the time he meets the wizened old empress Tzu Hsi at the book’s conclusion, readers are very much supposed to feel she’s the one being honored.
This kind of cultural condescension comes about in the most benign way, but it can get a little wearying. It’s the only drawback of this otherwise fine and tightly controlled novel. Reviewed by Steve Donoghue