Magazine article The Spectator

Running out of Steam in the Middle of China

Magazine article The Spectator

Running out of Steam in the Middle of China

Article excerpt

SOMETHING LIKE A HOUSE

by Sid Smith

Picador, L12.99, pp. 216

This is a quirky but good little novel, marred halfway through by the author's violation of a basic injunction to novelists: `If you want to send a message, send a telegram.'

Set in one of the southern Chinese provinces teeming with non-Chinese ethnic minorities, the novel, that is the first 146 pages of it, is about the 30-odd years lived there by Jim Fraser, a deserter from the British army during the Korean war. Fraser is a lonely, nearly blank Scot, raised in an orphanage, who doesn't quite intend to desert: he just does what is natural for him throughout the book - he wanders away from the army. After he is captured by Chinese soldiers, he is moved from Korea to China where he is deposited in a clinic where they seem interested in his health. This has something to do with biological warfare in Korea, which the Americans may have employed (Mr Smith states this as a fact) against their adversaries. Then a couple called Tao take Fraser to their tiny settlement of a few hovels in a region peopled mostly by Miao, one of the local minorities. They speak their own language, wear traditional dress, worship the buffalo, and do almost everything differently from their Chinese overlords, whose largest town is a stiff walk away over the hills.

Fraser slowly settles in. At first the Taos use him a labourer. He is neither well- nor ill-used; he cannot converse with them indeed, he barely speaks in this novel. He whispers a few words near the beginning, which on re-reading the book, I realised the Fraser who plods mutely through life (except when he finds brief happiness with a woman who returns to the hamlet after many years) could never have said: `My name is Jim. Jim Fraser. Hello. Call me Jim. I have seen amazing things.' Sid Smith, whose first novel this is, seems not to trust his story to be interesting enough without tossing out a bit of bait.

For over half of Something Like a House Smith does a hard thing well: he knows a lot about the Miao, but instead of astonishing us with his arcana he shows us this people through Fraser's eyes. Over many years the orphan gets used to his hamlet which is exaggerating the size of the place - and its few inhabitants, who have one buffalo between them for working their fields, get used to him. …

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