In the new novel by Leslie Shimotakahara, the protagonist Jill Lau returns to her childhood home, thinking, “Hong Kong’s always seemed like this: the new trying to overtake the old, the old never quite disappearing.” In many ways, the familial tension at the heart of Red Oblivion (Dundurn Press) stems from the same issue. Jill and her sister, Celeste, are constantly trying to carve out new lives for themselves, in new corners of the globe, but are never fully released from the bonds of their family’s heritage.
Jill and Celeste were raised in Hong Kong and sent by their parents to school in Toronto—with the assumption that both daughters would return home afterwards. But the sisters are drawn to the chance to start fresh in Canada and choose not to come home. It is only when they receive a phone call from their father’s housekeeper, telling them that their father has unexpectedly collapsed and been rushed to the hospital, that Jill and Celeste must return to their homeland for the first time in years.
The novel was inspired by the author’s own experience learning more about her father-in-law’s mysterious past. Ultimately, the character of Ba took shape, Jill and Celeste’s father in Red Oblivion.
The product of a youth spent grappling with poverty and the ravages of war, Ba developed a ruthless work ethic and entrepreneurial drive in order to provide for his family while living in Guangzhou, China. He survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and escaped to Hong Kong, where he enjoyed great success as a self-made businessman.
Or so Jill thinks.
But she slowly learns the disturbing circumstances surrounding Ba’s abrupt illness. Troubling photographs depicting the Red Guards (student-soldiers mobilized by Mao during the Cultural Revolution) had been mailed anonymously to Ba in the days leading up to his hospitalization. And the blackmail continues after Jill’s arrival.
Can the past ever really be buried? Is a fresh start really possible?
When her father refuses to divulge any information about his time in China, Jill begins to investigate Ba on her own, realizing that there are gaps in his story that she has never been able to fill: How exactly did he escape from Guangzhou and become so successful, so quickly? The reader knows as much—or rather, as little—as Jill does, and we are just as eager to piece together Ba’s history as our protagonist.
A story about life in contemporary Hong Kong as well as the region’s complicated history with mainland China, Red Oblivion feels particularly relevant to read in this current moment. Protests are still erupting in Hong Kong over the region’s relationship with China.
And although Ba’s past is unique to his particular place and time, Jill’s quest is ultimately a universal one. She is plagued by the questions that every child eventually wonders about: How well do we actually know our parents? What lives did they lead before we were born? And what implications do our parents’ pasts have on our own lives today?
Red Oblivion is a mystery; we follow Jill’s sleuthing across Hong Kong and China in the hope of uncovering Ba’s secrets. But it is also an exploration of complex family dynamics. Jill and Celeste adopted new behaviors and perspectives while living in Canada, which clash with the cultural values of Hong Kong upon their return.
Jill’s relationship with her father is already complicated by the fact that the formidable patriarch of her childhood has suddenly crumbled into a fragile old man in a hospital bed. It becomes even more fraught as she wrestles with two competing visions of Ba: the man she knew as a respected businessman whom she always strove to impress, and the man described by the blackmailer as a violent and vindictive revolutionary.
Rife with intrigues of all sorts, Jill (and the reader) can’t escape the ultimate truth. What kind of man was her father? And what might that mean about the woman she is now?
Red Oblivion is available for purchase.
About Leslie Shimotakahara:
Leslie Shimotakahara‘s memoir The Reading List won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize in 2012, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Artist Award. She has a PhD in English from Brown University, where she wrote her dissertation on the relationship between American regionalism and modernism in the fiction of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison. She had a brief career as an English professor, before it became clear that what she really wanted to do was pursue her original childhood passion, creative writing. Her debut novel After the Bloom, which draws upon her Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian family history, received a starred review in Booklist, was praised by the National Post as a “deep and beautiful story,” and appeared on Bustle’s, Reading Group Choices’ and the 49th Shelf’s lists of spring/summer picks for 2017. In 2018, she served on the jury for the Governor General’s Non-Fiction Award. Her next novel Red Oblivion, a literary thriller set in Hong Kong, has recently been published.
Over the years, Leslie has lived in a variety of places including Trinidad, Toronto, Montreal, Providence, Berlin, Antigonish, and Hong Kong. These days, Leslie and her partner Chris Wong make their home in the Brockton Village neighborhood of Toronto.
Find out more at her website.