Francesca Brill's engaging debut novel 'The Harbour' is set in Hong Kong where her story begins in the summer of 1940, when World War II is raging in Europe and the Chinese are preparing themselves for another conflict with their old enemy, Japan. In this unsettled moment in time we meet Stevie Steiber, a young, independent and very attractive American journalist who, while writing articles on society gossip to earn a living, longs to have a career as a serious writer with a voice that is listened to and respected. Stevie's lover, Jishang, is a wealthy and sophisticated Chinese publisher and the owner of a controversial political magazine, but although he is a successful businessman, he is under suspicion by the British Government, who send Major Harry Field to investigate Jishang and his business interests.
When Major Field pays a visit to Jishang in his apartment and unexpectedly meets Stevie, the mutual attraction between her and Harry is an almost palpable force and one that cannot be ignored by either of them, or indeed, by Jishang. When Jishang leaves Hong Kong temporarily for Shanghai, Harry and Stevie embark on an intensely passionate, but difficult love affair, complicated by the fact that Stevie is reluctant to commit herself wholeheartedly to Harry, and even further complicated as Harry is not a free man. When the threat of invasion by Japan increases, Harry manages to obtain a promise from Stevie that she will leave the island as soon as there is any real danger; however things move more quickly than imagined and when the Japanese army takes control of Hong Kong, Stevie is unable to leave as she had promised, and both she and Harry are faced with terrifying ordeals that leave neither of them unscathed.
Inspired by real life experiences, Francesca Brill's novel is well researched and her descriptions of Hong Kong, with its contrasts of beauty and ugliness, its hustle and bustle, its scents and textures, are very well done and a pleasure to read. The character of Stevie who, when younger, modelled herself on Katherine Hepburn (or possibly Martha Gellhorn) is wonderfully depicted - at first she may not appear to be a particularly sympathetic heroine with her background of love affairs, her opium smoking and her hedonistic lifestyle - but as we get more acquainted with her and start to understand a little more about her personality, she becomes a more engaging and likeable character, and the same can be said of Harry. The other characters surrounding Harry and Stevie are also well depicted - especially Stevie's Chinese friend, Lily, an endearing young woman who is a great help and support to Stevie, particularly during the terrible ordeals she faces after the Japanese invasion. Francesca Brill's debut novel is an absorbing and engaging story and, for a first novel, a rather impressive start; I shall be looking forward with interest to see what she decides on for her next fictional outing.