Connoisseurs of literary novels are sometimes known to have a somewhat sniffy attitude towards genre fiction. But what happens when literary novels themselves become generic and derivative? Take Francesca Rhydderch’s debut novel, The Rice Paper Diaries for example. Set primarily in Hong Kong before and during the Japanese invasion, and in Wales in the years immediately after the war, the novel follows the Jones family from their privileged place in pre-war Hong Kong society, through internment, to their post-war troubles back home in Wales. It’s an interesting enough tale of love, loss and betrayal, but sadly that tale is diminished by the novel’s frequent and very self-conscious efforts to display its literary credentials.
The Rice Paper Diaries begins with a simile, setting the tone for the surfeit of imagery which follows. The resultant prose is, as a consequence, pretty but rarely pulsating. At times, indeed, the similes seem almost to compete with each other like eager schoolchildren vying for approval. Structurally too, the novel ticks all the right literary boxes. Bookended by a prologue and epilogue set in 1996, the bulk of the narrative is split into four sections, each with a different narrative voice. The problem is that despite these frequent shifts, the author’s voice dominates throughout. Thus, in her first person account of the moment of invasion in the second section of the novel, the Chinese maid Lin sounds suspiciously like the third person narrator of the first section, despite the fact that first section is focalised through the very different (Western) perspective of Elsa Jones. When Lin notes that ‘the English words my new mistress uses are starting to take root, flowering into whole sentences’, we can’t help but agree, and indeed compliment Lin on her modesty and sense of understatement. The third section, comprised of journal extracts written by Tommy Jones describing the family’s internment, similarly fails to convince, seeming more an epistolary section for the sake of having an epistolary section, rather than something that drives the narrative forward.
The final section, describing the family’s return to Wales after the war is better, the relentlessly gloomy third person narrative effectively conveying the simmering difficulties the family encounter in putting the trauma of war behind them and moving on with their lives. However, even here, much of the good work is undone by the choice of the Jones’s young daughter, Mari, as focaliser. As well as inheriting the family gene for metaphor and simile, she has a preposterously precocious way of seeing the world for one so young, here noting that “[w]hen Nannon and Elsa come out of the house wearing lipstick and sunglasses, they look like photographs of themselves”, and there observing of the local phrase rabbit riot that ‘[s]he likes the sound of the words, rubbed up against each other like that’. Pretty, no doubt, but do six-year-olds really see the world through such lenses?
The result of all this, unfortunately, is that it becomes quite difficult to care. To the extent that the novel’s format allows them to be developed, the characters tend towards the insipid. Similarly, although Rhydderch has clearly done her homework, the historical detail doesn’t really come to life. In particular, the sections dealing with the fall of a great imperial city to an Asian army and the subsequent internment of its Western residents lack the gripping sense of fear, devastation and seismic change successfully portrayed in other novels on the subject, most notably, JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Of course, The Rice Paper Diaries is not necessarily trying to be that kind of novel. Unfortunately, it is trying a little too hard to be a very literary novel indeed.