Once upon a time in Chinatown, by Robert Ronsson, is an engaging and not too demanding story inspired by a film – Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, released 1974 – that I haven’t seen. The writing has a noir quality and beat, featuring an apparently benign narrator who can never quite be trusted. Within the tale various characters are drawn to a grand but unfinished building in Malaysia – Kellie’s Castle – which actually exists and has the general history used by the author to fine effect. He is a self declared film enthusiast and this shines through in the writing style and references.
The story opens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London in 1996. This introduces the reader to the protagonist, Steven Cross, and plants a seed that he may have been involved in nefarious activities. He vaguely refers to events of the previous six years, pondering how the past is always open to interpretation.
“Yesterday can be changed in its recollection and retelling, particularly if you have something to hide.”
The timeline then moves back to 1990, with the rest of the book offering Steven’s version of how his life changed radically following the death of his mother, Stella, in the late summer of that year. She was a foundling who raised her son alone after his father died before they could marry. These facts resulted in Steven having no known wider family. After Stella’s death, her middle aged and financially stable son cleared their shared house of her belongings. In doing so he came across the name of his father for the first time, and a photograph. Clues to the identity of an enigmatic but never discussed figure from his past set Steven on a road that would eventually lead him to similarly aged cousins who help him piece together their family history. Their forebears’ ambitions and love stories started in Scotland but took them to Malaysia, Lisbon, and to Steven’s locale in London.
The history and culture of Malaysia in the twentieth century has a key role to play but the focus of the story is one of family and expected loyalties. Steven states many times how much he values now being a part of a known and shared ancestry. In light of his actions, the reader may not be quite so convinced of his motives in becoming involved in his cousins’ lives.
Aspects of plot development, particularly those set in Lisbon, at times dragged a little. Nancy’s beauty and the effect this had on men appeared clichéd. Nevertheless, there are enough interlinked threads made plausible and necessary for added depth and progression. Film quotes fitted without feeling shoe-horned in.
The tale is told as a straightforward narration yet there are blurred lines in admitted asides. Steven’s claim to be offering a truthful account are tantalisingly believable – for what constitutes truth when certain facts can always be omitted?
In these strange times I was looking for a story that offered effortless escapism. There is enough of interest in this deliciously equivocal tale to more than meet this criteria.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.