In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed following the Second World War, and of Asia's coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity.
Shirley Hazzard has a remarkable gift for evoking atmosphere and places, as in her descriptions of postwar Hong Kong, rank with decay, grimy and sticky, the July air ‘a blanket, summer weight’...Equally acute are the descriptions of the people Exley encounters: the Eurasians, desperate to oblige the ‘unmixed races,’ European or Asian, who treat them with disdain; the laughing, bouncing, big-boned English girls forever somewhere in Middlesex. None of these women tempts Exley out of his torpor. During his sleepless nights, in Hazzard’s phrase, he has to fight alone the war that he cannot survive. Leith does survive in the end, redeemed by love. That is the heart of Hazzard’s story, but there is a subplot, which can be summarized as the great escape from the Antipodes … Beautifully observed, and deeply depressing. But how could it be otherwise? Places play their assigned roles in this love story, just as the people do.
...a classic romance so cleverly embedded in a work of clear-eyed postwar sagacity that readers will not realize until halfway through that they are rooting for a pair of ill-starred lovers who might have stepped off a Renaissance stage … This is not a novel of war and its aftermath so much as a study of how people act, and how they are acted upon, in the wake of violent disruption. After you shake the chessboard, how will the pieces realign themselves? … The greatest pleasure is her subtle and unexpected prose...Never lyrical for the sake of lyricism, [it] follows the sensible course of her characters – open to beauty and alert to its dangers.
The old stories endure, and one of the most enduring is that of the damsel in distress who is rescued by her peerless knight astride his charger. However, it would be a brave writer who would dare, in this Age of Irony, to make it the basis for a novel … Hazzard's book...flatters us in its assumption that we are engaged along with the author in a philosophical meditation on the deeper meaning of life, but her elliptical style will quickly try the patience of all but the most devoted reader … Leith, the divorced, lonely romantic, immediately falls in love with Helen, and the tale gets properly under way. Even in these earliest pages, the reader can hear the knight's armor creaking, his steed pawing the earth and the damsel's soft gasps of anticipation.