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3.4 out of 5 stars
3.4 out of 5 stars

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on 12 December 2016
I cam across this novel when having a sort and clear-out. Presumably I read it at some point in the past. If so, it left no impression (unlike Sour Sweet which I recall enjoying). Given that it is a short novel, I was sufficiently intrigued by the title and cover to give it a go. I found the book good in parts. The first part was amusing, the sharp early portrait of domestic life tyrannised by the despotic Mr Poon came across as a Chinese version of Dickensian satire - larger than life and vividly drawn characters, brought to life to some extent by a distinctive, slangy speech pattern which presumably was intended to give some idea in English of the bizarre Cantonese dialect. I say "to some extent" because after a while it no longer seemed to work. I found the middle part of the book increasingly tedious. The comic element, where it existed at all, was either heavy humour or a poor attempt at slapstick. Wallace's transformation from the flaneur of Part 1 into the inventive and industrious village entrepreneur - apprentice to the business dynamo fully developed in Part 3 - was unconvincing. Part 3 showed some return to the amusing satire of Part 1 but it was a struggle to stay through Part 2 to get there. By then the storyline in Part 3 was all too predictable and - given the shaky foundations in Part 2 - equally unconvincing. Finally, if the monkey king dream was intended to illuminate through some mythical connection the deep inner meaning around which the novel coheres, frankly it left me in the dark, completely baffled. If an author is going to use a mythical being from another culture in this way, then he surely has some responsibility to provide clues or connections to bridge the cross-cultural gap with his Western readers. I have researched the monkey king myth and pondered some ideas as a result. Maybe an intuitive leap will come when I'm in the shower one day. I have my doubts. I'm a fairly perceptive reader but the appercu, if any, eludes me. No doubt Mr Mo was still feeling his way in a first novel. But there is a difference between originality and obscurity. The book works well as a novel of manners. It falls down with a banal and predictable plot development and when Mr Mo becomes too self-consciously clever. In that the book shares (to continue the comparison) both the good and the weaker elements of Dickens. Meanwhile if anyone can cast light on the significance of the monkey dream, I'd be delighted if they would share t with me.
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on 25 October 2001
I first found this funny, sad, poignant book while living in Hong Kong and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the place, or simply looking for a cracking good read. It's set around an eccentric chinese family living in an old, atmospheric and crumbling house (of the kind, alas, that has been completely eliminated from Hong Kong's neighborhoods) and describes their personalities and eccentricities in clean, clear prose. I was surprised by how many of the details (people's actions, attitudes) were still relevant to the Hong Kong of the late nineties (and probably today). I feel I saw and met many members of Timothy Mo's fictional family in and about the city during my residence. This book is also good because it does not sentimentalize or pull any punches in its description of Hong Kong, and gives quite a true picture of the place, at least to this expat. If you like this book, try Austin Coates' Myself a Mandarin and Paul Theroux's Kowloon Tong, both excellent, insightful, accurate and, like Timothy Mo, just a plain good read.
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on 12 February 2009
I know nothing about life in China or Hong Kong, but I was fortunate enough to visit Hong Kong in 2007, which is what prompted me to try to read a little bit about it. I gather that this book is pretty accurate about life in Hong Kong in the 1950s. Of course, I do not know if that is the case, but the author makes it very vivid and real. The tale follows a couple of years in the life of one man, who marries into the Poon family, and how he is manipulated by his father-in-law and generally bullied by his other in-laws, yet somehow always emerges the victor of these minor domestic skirmishes (hence the "Monkey King" of the title - yup, it's him!).

This story does meander around. It doesn't seem to do much. But this is not a bad thing. I found it very amusing, and the characters horribly believable (most of them are not nice) - maybe they do exist in Hong Kong, but honestly, I could find a parallel for all of them here in Devon! And I found myself cheering on the lead character, willing him to triumph over the petty everyday arguments.
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on 10 December 2011
In the first part of this book, life in the household of the domestic tyrant Mr Poon makes for a painful though blackly funny read. Fortunately, humane values establish themselves ever more firmly chez Poon as the book progresses and the personalities of the downtrodden begin to blossom.

This is an entirely individual comedy full of vignettes of life in Hong Kong and the New Territories almost sixty years ago. Every character has his or her share of foibles and every race likewise. The dialogue is a special delight - a strangely Cantonese version of English with no plurals, of course, and hilariously erratic tenses.

This is a novel that relishes absurdity and keeps its humour dry.
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on 29 August 2003
Two things really fascinated me about "The Monkey King" and "Sour Sweet", the first two of Timothy Mo's novels and the first two that I read.
The first is that, despite it now being 6 years since I read these books, I am staggered by the clarity and longevity of the pictures that Timothy Mo painted in my head. I have since found this with all of Mo's novels: the vividness of the depiction of the scenery or interiors makes me feel as if I've watched a film of the story, rather than read a book. I haven't sat back and analysed his writing to find out how he does it - and partly I haven't done so now for fear of spoiling the magic with which I remember the stories.
The second is that Mo's main characters in these two novels are unknowing innocents simply living their lives, such that the reader can see the wider implications of their actions when they cannot do so themselves. For example, in "The Monkey King" the reader is all too aware that Wallace Nolasco fits in far lower down the hierarchy of the Poon family than he thinks. Again, in "Sour Sweet", the thought of triad involvement is more often with the reader than with the characters. Often, the dramas that unfold in the stories are the result of quirky accidents rather than design - but that's what gives the stories such authenticity. Consequently, you feel as if you're a privileged observer quietly watching the characters live their ordinary lives for a few years. I could quite happily believe that the main protagonists had lived their lives like this before the events told in the story, and would continue to do so, just as naively, after the book is finished.
I thoroughly recommend Mo's writing to you if you enjoy novels that totally immerse you in the observation of others' lives - even where those lives are not always pretty. I found the "Monkey King" and "Sour Sweet" so deliciously different that I've subsequently read Mo's other 4 novels: "An Insular Possession", "A Redundancy of Courage", "Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard" and "Renegade or Halo2". I suggest that you read them at a time when you can really indulge yourself by giving each of them the attention it deserves. These are absolute gems.
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on 16 January 2009
A good read this: strong characters and a believable backdrop. The length of the novel is well judged too - it doesn't suffer the current vogue for 250+ pages regardless. The sense of the narration via the main character's lyrical but still odly poor English is entertaining, but I doubt I'd want a sequal.
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on 1 December 2014
Book in great condition but did not enjoy story
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on 29 January 2003
the reader is lead around the Hong Kong peninsula starting at Mr Poon's House, via the country site in the new territories and back to town for a much improved future. Never does the reader expect what to find , less understand the "monkey king" fable analogy, until he reaches the penultimate page... in the form of a gastronomic dream. The characters are endearing and the surprise transformation of Fong, suicidal much beaten daughter in law to wizard accountant working for "Wal-less" is amazing. The speech gives a flavour so that you can almost smell the place too. And it often is not pleasant (the smell and the nasty behaviour of some family members). An enlightening portrait of chinese savoir-vivre and way of life. Better than any crime fiction!
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on 23 November 2008
We read this for a bookgroup I am in. Found it unutterably boring. Did not seem to have any hook for the reader. Felt like all the action was happening very far away, as if the narrator was very distanced from it. Seemed to have no narrative drive, just very episodic and none of the episodes were interesting. Not at all funny. Seems odd, as I really enjoyed Sour Sweet, so was expecting to enjoy this. Surprising to see that it won so many plaudits from critics. Would have given it no stars if that was possible.
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on 28 May 2007
I bought this after seeing an Amazon recommendation that is was similar to Myself, A Mandarin.

What a waste of time and money. Although some pages are very evocative the book wobbles as if written by a child with a short attention span.

A very disappointing purchase and a bad reflection on Amazon's recommendations
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