Earlier this year I read and absolutely loved a collection of short stories by Graeme Hall called The Goddess of Macau. I was therefore delighted to be asked to be involved in the cover reveal for Graeme’s novel, On Borrowed Time, which I am eagerly looking forward to reading and reviewing ahead of the blog tour in January.
On Borrowed Time is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai over the period 1996/1997 – including the handover of Hong Kong to China. The novel explores the choices that people have to make; in particular between doing what is easy and what is right.
In Hong Kong, Emma Janssen discovers the truth behind the death of her brother four years earlier. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, a PhD student meets a woman with an unusual degree of interest in his research. These storylines converge at the time of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and Emma finds that she has to choose between revenge or the future happiness and safety of both herself and those close to her.
While being a work of fiction, On Borrowed Time is rooted in the author’s own experiences of living and working in Hong Kong from 1993 to 2010, in particular the final years of British rule and the transfer of sovereignty back to China.
And this is the gorgeous cover…….
I’m now delighted to hand over to Graeme himself…….
The difficulty of doing the right thing
You might say I’m a living cliché. The middle-aged man who gives up his job to write a novel. Of course, that’s not the whole story, I wanted to stop working anyway and was fortunate enough to have the means to do so, but like all clichés it exists because there is a grain of truth in it. Haven’t we all at some time or other said that “I’d love to write a novel”? Haven’t we all known that somewhere “There’s a novel inside me, waiting to get out”?
Well, my novel – On Borrowed Time – will finally see the light of day in January, but it has been a long road to get there, with a very satisfying diversion into the world of short stories, and I have learnt so much along the way. Not only about the craft of writing itself, but also just how much is involved in the business of publication, whether traditional or independent.
The one thing I knew from the start was the setting and the core subject matter: Hong Kong and the handover to China in 1997. I lived in Hong Kong at the time and I knew that I wanted to revisit that period. Indeed, there were times when for me the act of writing was a form of time-travel. I had kept a journal of those years which I returned to for reference, and for details of daily life that I could feed back into the story. And yes, like many first novels there is an autobiographical element, and when I was working on the book I would often have dreams about Hong Kong, taking me back to those days.
On the other hand, what the story itself was to be was not so clear – unfortunately I am a dreadful pantser incapable of planning – except that I knew I wanted to explore the dilemma in trying to have a successful career while keeping on the right side of ethics and morals. A challenge everywhere of course, but increasingly difficult in Hong Kong where business and politics are intertwined. An early short story that I wrote about a corporate lawyer who dated a human rights activist was a dreadful piece of writing, embarrassingly bad, but in some ways it became the skeleton that the novel is built on. Doing the right thing regardless of the consequences.
What I didn’t know when I started writing On Borrowed Time back in 2015, was just how quickly its themes would become relevant to contemporary Hong Kong. Alarmingly quickly. Back then I had never anticipated that by 2020 there would be a National Security Law in Hong Kong that gave sweeping powers to China; a law that would allow Chinese security agents to operate freely within Hong Kong without any checks or limitations. I would never have imagined that young Hongkongers would be arrested on the flimsiest of charges or that others would have to flee the city to seek asylum elsewhere. That legislators would be kicked out of office by diktat, and that journalists would be arrested.
If I had known how bad things were to become in Hong Kong, perhaps the novel would have been darker, or perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to write it at all. The late 1990s were an unusual time in Hong Kong of course, but for all the worries about the 1997 handover there remained a sense of optimism. Optimism that we now know was misplaced.
The thought of writing about contemporary Hong Kong seems too painful to contemplate at the moment. Perhaps some time in the future with a little distance.
HONG KONG, AUGUST 1997
Even without opening it Sam knew at once who the letter was from. It stood out among the junk mail and bills, and there was no mistaking the hand that had written the address. The vertical strokes in the H and the K, the tails of the ‘g’s. It was handwriting he had seen in messages on his desk telling him to return a call he had missed. He recognised it from notes left on the fridge reminding him to buy milk. It was handwriting that had been on the first Valentine’s card he had received in years. The letter was from Emma.
The envelope was postmarked Winchester, so that meant she was back with her parents. He shouldn’t really have been surprised. After all, that was where she’d said she would be going, but he hadn’t been sure if she was telling the truth. Her sudden unexpected departure, leaving with barely a warning, had left him doubting everything. He held the envelope in his hands. He should open it, of course, and he would when he was ready, but it had been a long day. He threw his jacket over the back of a chair and slumped on the sofa, leaving the letter on the coffee table in front of him.
The office had become his anaesthetic of choice: losing himself in his new role as a partner; working late so that he had an excuse when colleagues tried to drag him out to a bar, cutting himself off from even his closest friends; trying to overwrite his memories and thoughts with contract terms and warranties, agreements and memoranda. He had to keep going because the dark times came when he stopped. That was when his mind went back to those final days, only a few short weeks ago. The day Emma told him that it wasn’t going to work, the day she said that they couldn’t be together, that she was going back to the UK. When he stopped moving, when he stopped running away from his thoughts, that was when the memories came rushing back. He re-lived their final conversations on a permanent loop, looking for an explanation that he never found. Looking for something he might have missed.
On Borrowed Time will be released on 11th January 2021, and my review will be live on 7th January as part of the blog tour.