Pao by Kerry Young

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Pao by Kerry Young

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Infused with the political background of Jamaican independence, spanning nearly 60 years, this book uses the time-honoured appeal of being narrated by a bad man with a conscience. It's a great story with a political hint rather than the other way around.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780747512075

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In her Costa Prize short-listed first novel, Kerry Young brings together a huge number of elements that make up a good story. Set in Jamaica, the time period covers 1938 to almost present day, it is the political backdrop of independence and control over Jamaica's assets that informs much of the story. But while the politics of Jamaica resound throughout the book, it's also a very personal story about the life of the eponymous Yang Pao. Issues of race, class, love, family, ambition and business philosophy - Pao's guiding light is Sun Tzu's The Art of War - are skilfully woven into the mix to make this a great book to curl up with on a cold winter's night.

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.

Our thanks to the kind people at Bloomsbury for sending us a copy of this Costa-nominated book.

Competing with Pao for this year's Costa Prize First Novel award is the equally politically orientated The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness. With so much coffee shop politics, it's like being in Paris ... You might also enjoy The Pink House at Appleton by Jonathan Braham.

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Booklists.jpg Pao by Kerry Young is in the Costa Prize 2011.


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