Pao Paperback – 12 Apr 2012
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'With grace, authenticity and humour, Young lets Jamaica's political history shine through the life story of her charming yet fallible hero. Brilliant' (Daily Mail)
'A pacy but absorbing saga of domestic struggle and gangland manoeuvring set against the violent backdrop of postwar Jamaican politics ... [A] punchy tale of pungent characters and impassioned entanglements' (Independent on Sunday)
'In pages of patois-inflected prose, Pao celebrates the islands vibrant ethnic mix up ... [Pao] confirms Young as a gifted new writer. Her novel is a blindingly good read in parts, both for its mesmeric story-telling and the quality of its prose' (Observer)
'Young's heartfelt, sparky and affecting debut novel is a chronicle of multicultural Jamaica .... The complexity of Jamaican society in Pao is fascinating and bewildering' (Guardian)
A richly imagined, wholly engrossing and utterly captivating novel that tells the remarkable history of twentieth century JamaicaSee all Product description
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told in the first person, the story spans the life of yang pao from his arrival in jamaica as a young boy to his ascension to the position of 'godfather' of chinatown. pao is guided by the social and philosophical ideals of his mentor and step father, zhang and the writings of sun tzu as he attempts to manage events at home and in business.
yang pao is inexplicably, compellingly loveable despite his misdeeds and the rhythm and flow of his narrative make this an easy page turner (even for someone like me who generally has little interest in reading about history and politics). yes, the signposts for dates are not always clear (especially to the politically ignorant) and yes, the story spans a vast time period over what can seem like too few pages, but for me this is symptomatic of being swept up on pao's journey, observing as he does, discovering as he does, regretting as he does without being bogged down by mundane description so many authors seem preoccupied with (i was going to ask "who wants to know what a character had for dinner?", but in this case i most definitely did!!). nonetheless, the pace of the story is not at the expense of the little details and pao's matter-of-fact, often comical perspective on life is what makes the book. can't wait to read gloria's side of the story!
don't be put off by the historical, political and philosophical undertones, for whilst 'pao' encompasses all of these disciplines, it is essentially a book about life and family.
One of the first things that you notice is that because the story is narrated by Pao, it is all told in his own dialect form of English. To illustrate with a sentence at random: "Him no say nothing to me". She also interchanges "you" and "yu" - although quite what the difference is was lost on me. Some will undoubtedly find that irritating, and I confess that after longer periods of reading I did sort of yearn for a full, grammatical sentence, but in truth your mind quickly becomes attuned to the style and the meaning is always clear. I had more of a struggle with the dialogue in that there does not appear to be much difference between the style of language between those of Chinese and African-Jamaican origin. However, with the author's Chinese/Jamaican heritage, I can only assume that it's totally accurate.
Pao runs a protection business in Chinatown. He's sort of like a small time version of Tony Soprano. As so often with gangster-based literature, he has a moral element and is nice to his mother in a sort of Reggie Kray way, and sees himself almost as a Robin Hood figure. If I have one real gripe about the book it's that most of what you can euphemistically call the enforcement of his power happens off stage. There's always something alluring about having the voice of a bad man talking directly to you - at the risk of throwing yet another name into this paragraph, it's a trick that William Shakespeare understood well. However, without making the means of his power explicit, this weakened the image for me.
That's not to suggest that we are not presented with at least some issues that push your moral compass to the limit. Pao quickly gets involved with a prostitution business - inevitably he takes the side of an attacked prostitute to exact revenge before offering the business his "protection" and becomes romantically involved with one of the girls, Gloria. Even when he makes a culturally more acceptable match with Fay, a completely unsuitable, headstrong daughter of a rich Chinese businessman and gets married, he continues his relationship with Gloria.
In fact, it is Fay and Gloria who talk the most sense throughout the book, albeit in different ways. They come from different racial backgrounds, different classes and are chalk and cheese and yet, in their own ways it's often easier to empathize with their views, even though Fay is gloriously selfish at times.
I cannot say that I always had much of a sense of the setting beyond the politics, although in the final few pages there is an exquisitely described journey into the Jamaican country that completely evokes an image of the island. Ironically, it was only when I read this that I felt that I'd lacked that view up to that point.
The great strength of the book is that it is situated in the politics of the country, although it is not an overtly political story. The conclusion of the story though is poignant and thoughtful as Pao considers his socialist views against what has happened to Jamaica while he has seen his business rise and fall in fortunes. But most of all, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The book is good (it really is) but the errors are too blatant and the history too simplistic (and flawed) for any Jamaican emigre to feel fully satisfied by it.
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