Novel by David Harper
Review by Rob Mohr
David Harper’s first novel, Kwangchow, is an unforgettable story of Freddy Everard’s life from youthful naiveté to a maturity reminiscent of John Fowles’ Daniel Martin’s return to his authentic being. The central character, Freddy, (the name grows on you) is a young third officer on a large Hong-Kong based British freighter with a Chinese crew.
Unknown to all but the ship’s captain, our hero is also an undercover British naval officer sent to spy on Chinese shipping. Freddy approaches life at sea with believable innocence. Unaware of the challenges of shared responsibility for a heavy freighter, and the consequences of his role as spy, a series of traumatic events which include being taken captive, transform his naiveté into a mellowed understanding of his own values.
While the first chapter lacks focus, the subsequent writing is smooth and effortless, offering a complex detailed story that held my interest from beginning to end.
The novel begins as Freddy faces Captain Marshal’s suspicion and dislike, while Andy, the chief officer, sensing the captain’s reserve – not unlike Thomas Heggen’s Mr. Roberts – helps and encourages the young officer in opposition to Andy. Bill Nicholls, the chief engineer below deck, gleefully leads the hero shoreward to places and women of questionable value. The tension between above deck and below deck officers is palpable.
On his first solo watch tension builds as Freddy has to navigate the heavy freighter through thousands of Chinese fishing vessels without sinking the fragile ships. From that point on, the author’s understanding of the writer’s craft, and his first-hand experience as an officer on a British merchantman, enable the story to flow with an urgency that is sustained throughout.
One fascinating encounter is with the inimitable Gurdon, a classic double agent whose loyalties are in doubt. Gurdon, a friend of Mao’s, has for mysterious reasons, been in China since the early 1920’s.
The reader’s interest is held fast as Freddy engages a world dominated by the sea and filled with adventure, conflict, love and hope. In the vein of Richard Hughes’s Hazard, and Joseph Conrad’s sea stories, David Harper’s novel successfully draws a vivid portrait of men thriving in the austere and perilous conditions of life at sea.
In especially insightful moments the inscrutable actions of the Chinese crew, whose loyalty is not clear, test the mettle of the ships officers in unexpected ways.
Three well-developed female characters, Anna, Freddy’s first love back in London; the tantalizing Lilli in Hong Kong; and Heather, an Australian nurse working in primitive Rabaul, who follows Freddy to Brisbane, play key roles in Freddy‘s development. Harper breathes life into their unresolved needs and their conflicted relationship with Freddy. These interactions with Freddy give the story weight and serve as relief from intense shipboard action.
The details about the lives and relationships among the crew, the ship and its workings, and the sight and sounds of the Far East are captivating. New conflicts emerge daily in encounters with greedy port authorities and corrupt Chinese systems, along with a classic sea adventure in which the ship, caught in the Straits of Taiwan, enters the vortex of three converging typhoons. For anyone who enjoys a great book of the sea this is a must read.
My own reading about the sea began with Moby Dick and the Hornblower series. However since reading Kwangchow, I am convinced that more contemporary sea tales offer equally exciting adventures.
The book can be bought at:
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