I bring you the newest book by one of my favourite writers, John Dolan.
Land of Red Mist by John Dolan
What is loyalty? What drives a person to treachery? And what do we really mean when we say we love someone?
Seeking to escape the stifling atmosphere of post-war England, the callow Edward Braddock voyages to South-East Asia to work on his uncle’s rubber plantation. But it soon becomes clear that beneath the tropical sky dangers await; and most especially in the depths of the human heart.
Set in the strife-torn Malaya of the 1950s during the end days of British rule, Land of Red Mist is a tale of yearning, folly and transformation.
About the author:
“Makes a living by travelling, talking a lot and sometimes writing stuff down. Galericulate author, polymath and occasional smarty-pants.”
John Dolan hails from a small town in the North-East of England. Before turning to writing, his career encompassed law and finance. He has run businesses in Europe, South and Central America, Africa and Asia. He and his wife Fiona currently divide their time between Thailand and the UK.
He is the author of the ‘Time, Blood and Karma‘ mystery series and the ‘Children of Karma‘ mystery trilogy.
I have been checking, and I think I’ve read and reviewed most of the books John Dolan has published so far (I haven’t had a chance to catch up with his Baking Bad, supposedly a collection of notes from his diary, but I’m sure I’ll get round to it soon), and have enjoyed everything: his adventures into mythology, his peculiar and irreverent dictionary, and most of all, his two related mystery series, Time, Blood and Karma, and Children of Karma. Therefore, it is always with trepidation that I receive the news of the publication of another one of his books. I have never been disappointed yet. And I wasn’t this time either.
For those who don’t have much time, here is a summary of my review: A great historical novel set in Malaya in the final years before its independence, about a character who encompasses both, the best and the worse of British colonialism, and a good opportunity to get a taste of Dolan’s writing for those who haven’t read his two mystery series. The action of this book takes place before those, so it can function as a peculiar kind of prequel to both, although it also closes the circle and provides some answers for those that, like me, have read them all.
Those who have read Dolan’s two previous mystery series, set mostly in Thailand, will remember that in the last book of Children of Karma, Everyone Dies, David Braddock, the protagonist, is given his father’s diary upon the man’s passing. And he hesitates a great deal before reading it because their relationship was never the best. Eventually, he reads it. Well, this is that book. And, tagged at the end, we also get to read the letter Edward Braddock wrote to accompany the diary. This is a diary written a posteriori, not something Edward wrote when things were happening, and although it is written in the first-person, as it befits a diary, it is clear that some things are glossed over and some are discussed in more detail, in order to compose the narrative he wishes to pass on. It is written in chronological order, however, it does not cover the whole of Edward’s life, but rather centres around the years he spent in Malaya, with some brief mention of his childhood (to do mostly with the time when he met his uncle Seb, who plays a big part in the novel later). Edward is fascinated by his uncle and by life in the exotic colonies, compared to the boring life his father leads, always buried in formality, bureaucracy, and convention. One of his goals throughout most of the novel is to keep away from the UK, and he goes to some extremes to try to ensure that is the case, even when he knows the end of British rule is near, and the political situation in Malaya is likely to change drastically.
This is a story of a young man who is intelligent and eager to pick up the skills necessary to make a living in Malaya, always under the wing of his uncle, and he seems to pay little attention to the risks of the situation, to the life of others around him, or to the concerns his own family might have. He is a good worker (but, then, he works in a supervisory position from the beginning and takes many things for granted), but his main concern is for himself, and for trying to be in his father’s good books without having to do exactly what his father wants from him. He is confronted with issues of loyalty from the very beginning (he is supposed to spy on his uncle and make sure he doesn’t get too cozy with the guerilla fighters, as he fought during WWII with some of them against the Japanese); and he somehow manages to keep himself afloat without upsetting the status quo. He shares characteristics of both, his father and his uncle, and overall, he is more conventional than his uncle, although he loves to think of himself as an adventurous individual, and an independent thinker.
This novel has some characteristics of a coming-of-age story, as Edward learns plenty throughout the book, about himself, his feelings, and what really matters. It is also a confession and a posthumous attempt to make things right with his son. And, although late, I must admit that especially the letter, is a very touching piece of writing.
I have talked about Edward at length, and I must confess that although I was fascinated by his life, I didn’t particularly warm to him. His is a mostly utilitarian point of view, and he had to be challenged to try and see things from anybody else’s perspective. He makes some disparaging comments about his father, but sometimes he acts in the same way, and he takes many things as a given and as a right, just because he is who he is. I won’t go into a lot of detail about what happens to him later, but let’s just say his life does not remain charmed forever, and his reaction is… complicated but understandable. Seb is a fabulous character, and I kept wondering how a novel about him would be (Hint, hint!). Although we don’t learn much about Jeanne, Edward’s sister, who also decides to try life in the colonies, I became very intrigued by her. (Yes, I wouldn’t mind learning more about her either). And Yu Yan. And Elizabeth. I’d love to get her own version of the story. Because there is a marriage, but romance… Not so much. There are plenty of other characters, all seen from Edward’s perspective, some heroic, some standard, some mysterious, and some truly horrid. And, perhaps the most important character of all is Malaya. The historical background, the international political situation, the fights, the changes the world was undergoing at the time, and the turmoil, all make for a compelling story, and this is a great way to learn about that historical period and gain a good perspective of what life must have been like in the area, especially for the Europeans living in the colonies. (There are only passing glances at what life was like for the natives).
Loyalty to the family, to your friends, and to your country (what and who really deserves your loyalty) are questioned, as are family relationships, betrayal, love, and respect, colonialism and independence, romance and love, fatherhood, blame, grief, revenge…
The book flows well and the writing style suits perfectly what we imagine would be the diary of a well-educated and travelled Englishman of the period, somebody well-informed in politics (he learns about it as he grows older), convinced of his own opinions although with some moments of hesitation and self-doubt, a good observer but not given to lengthy descriptions, rather preferring to write about the impression something makes on him. He can be witty at times, although he is not as given to philosophising or turning things on their heads as his son David is. The story is told at a good pace, it flows easily, and there are enough adventures to keep us turning the pages. Towards the end, the rhythm increases, and it is harder to keep up. Although the book is not explicit in its violence (and there is no graphic sex either), there are scary moments and some violence we are direct witnesses to (and some that are narrated second-hand), so people who prefer to avoid such subjects, should stay away.
As an example of the writing, here you have Edward’s description of his father:
My father, George Nathaniel Braddock, was by contrast a pillar of the British Establishment, a ramrod-backed soldier of the state and all that it represented: traditional values, deference to legal authority, moral superiority, and an unquestioning belief in the rightness of the Anglo-Saxon cause.
In case you wonder about the title:
The presence of jungle and swamp along parts of the route made the conditions ideal for ambushes: insurgents could wait patiently for a suitable target, then afterwards evaporate into the interior “like red mist” in the words of one of my fellow soldiers.
And here, his uncle Seb, talks about Edward’s father:
“It is not blood that runs through George’s veins, Edward, but duty.”
I have mentioned the letter that accompanies the novel, and it went a long way to make me make my peace with the main character, a man who lacked self-awareness but had to face some extreme and painful events in his life, and whose final words to his son are not a self-justification, but something much more beautiful.
Having said all that, I recommend this book to anybody keen on historical fiction set in Malaya post-WWII towards the end of the British home rule, to any fans of John Dolan, and to those who would like to discover a talented writer with a flair for combining great locations, with unforgettable characters, and complex plots that will keep them thinking.
Thanks to the author for his new novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to share, click, comment, and like, and never, ever stop smiling and enjoying every single minute of life. ♥