... excels as superbly atmospheric reportage of a place and time. Hong Kong, within its “amphitheatre of subtropical hills”, is captured with confident sweep and in vivid detail ... Political upheavals, surfacing more and more in Osborne’s fiction, here lock on to his continuing preoccupation with unsettledness and menace, making this novel his most compulsive yet.
No one else writes 'thrillers' as languid as Lawrence Osborne’s. His novels tend to be leisurely, slow-burn mysteries that could be mistaken for impeccably observed travel memoirs ... The tale begins to move more quickly ... Human nature and atmosphere will always interest Osborne more than the traditional pyrotechnics of a thriller. The palpable sense of dread that hovers over Hong Kong and Osborne’s exploration of Adrian’s own moral conundrum is what kept me turning the pages ... Osborne skillfully — and with exquisite prose — probes the nexus of community and character, and how where we are shapes who we are.
At its heart is a crime, but this, as much as anything, is a structural device on which to hang an examination of moral courage ... Osborne is an ambitious novelist and this is more than just a story about courage in Hong Kong. Throughout, Adrian opines on America’s ongoing struggles and the implication is that what is happening in Hong Kong and what is happening in America and Britain are two sides of the same coin ... Osborne is too clever a writer to reach a conclusion but the overall effect of this timely, elegantly written novel is unsettling and concerning.
Osborne's work has been compared to that of Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith. There are hints of those writers' influences in On Java Road, from the fish-out-of-water protagonist to the evocative depiction of an exotic locale to the murky mystery with its streaks of moral ambiguity. It isn't as gritty as it perhaps should be. Nevertheless, Osborne tells a riveting and neatly unnerving story that brilliantly conveys 'a period of sacred madness.'
... to call this a mystery may mislead a bit. The book is like a whodunit turned inside out, with what might usually be background—the precisely and evocatively drawn setting, especially—at center and the plot mostly crowding in around the edges. Hong Kong comes fiercely alive on the page, and Osborne’s command of complex history, geography, and politics (and poetry) is nuanced and sure-handed. He captures, too, Gyle’s feeling of wistful alienhood, the jadedness that approaches but never quite gets to cynicism. Some of the detail—especially about fashion, food, and drink—does pall a bit, but Osborne’s strategy is mostly successful: The reader senses early on that the disappearance, like the larger mystery it’s embedded in, the case of Hong Kong’s fate, won’t—can’t—have a simple solution ... Solutions belong only to those who can ruthlessly enforce them, and the reader—like the battered-from-all-sides Gyle and like the ordinary residents of Hong Kong—can have no illusions about that ... Moody and compelling.
... winning ... Osborne makes a city beset by unrest, countered by harsh repression, feel palpable, and the dynamic between two college friends of different socioeconomic backgrounds will remind many of Brideshead Revisited. Those patient enough to wait for the mystery plotline to kick in will be rewarded.