The Yellow Papers Synopsis
It’s 1872 and China – still bruised from its defeat in the two Opium Wars – sends a group of boys, including seven-year-old Chen Mu, to America to study and bring back the secrets of the West. But nine years on Chen Mu becomes a fugitive and flees to Umberumberka, a mining town in outback Australia. He eventually finds peace working for Matthew Dawson, a rich pastoralist.
When the bubonic plague ravages Sydney, Matthew Dawson’s daughter returns to her father’s property with her son, Edward. But it’s a lonely life for a small boy surrounded only by adults, and he soon befriends Chen Mu, forging a friendship that will last a lifetime.
Years later, Edward visits a mysterious and decadent Shanghai, where he falls in love with Ming Li, the beautiful young wife of a Chinese businessman, until invading Japanese armies tear the couple apart. Many years pass before the couple reunite, each scarred by the events of World War II and the Korean War. But will it be only to be torn apart once again?
The Yellow Papers is a story of love, obsession and friendship set against a backdrop of war and racial prejudice. (Transit Lounge)
Genre: Historical, Literature, Action-Adventure, Romance
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The Yellow Papers is the debut novel from Australian author Dominique Wilson. The painstaking research undertaken by the author before putting pen to paper is evident, as is the deep respect she has for her subject matter.
In particular, Wilson’s descriptions of Shanghai in high quality but controlled prose exude authenticity and even objectivity. But on occasion, I felt objectivity morphed into detachment. I’m undecided as to whether this was intentional, a mirror of the characters’ personal feelings of isolation, or authorial discipline.
The introduction of several characters and relationships within this novel felt quite perfunctory, merely stepping stones in the story told through a series of vignettes, little glimpses into the primary characters’ lives as they grew older. The space in between, the amount that is left unsaid, brings a literary feel to The Yellow Papers, along with the subtle recurrence of yellow papers and more overt reflections on Chinese philosophical teachings throughout the tale.
Those better-developed characters within The Yellow Papers, including Chen Mu, Edward Billings and those they grew attached to, engender respect from the reader through their self-sacrifice, determination, loyalty, and more uniquely their self-analysis and forgiveness. The novel itself has a reserved feeling about it, much like its characters. There are times when it soars towards a profundity reminiscent of the classics but it is restrained just before achieving it.
Where The Yellow Papers excels is its highlighting of the effects of war beyond the battlefields – the long-lasting impact the conflicts had on not just those that served and those whose countries were occupied, but those separated from their loved ones. It serves as a timely reminder of the trauma humans have inflicted upon one another, even relations and friends, in the name of a ‘higher purpose’. It also underscores that to think any individual, even the most enlightened and open-minded, is wholly immune to such views is naivety in the extreme. Anything can be rationalised or justified within context – survival, a powerful motivator.
Although I was not swept away by this novel as a whole, The Yellow Papers is undeniably moving in parts and the story’s intention highly worthy. Many actions and situations depicted are brutal and the conclusion is heart-wrenching. I will look out for Dominique Wilson’s next publication because beneath the restraint there is an observant eye and clear talent with language just waiting to shine bright.
BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5; Overall 3.75
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About the Author, Dominique Wilson
Dominique Wilson was born in Algiers to French parents. She grew up in a country torn by civil war, until she and her family fled to Australia. Her short stories have been published nationally and read on ABC Radio, and one of her short stories was made into a short film. She was founding co-managing editor of Wet Ink: the magazine of new writing, and Chair of the Adelaide branch of International PEN. She holds a Masters and a PhD in Creative Writing. Check out her website and connect with Dominique on Twitter / Facebook.
* My receiving a paperback copy of this title from Transit Lounge for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.