An aging expat journalist, British-born and bred but now 20 years in his country’s last colonial outpost of Hong Kong, is battling his own sell-by date while ostensibly trying to report on the historical forces that had long been unleashed by the island country’s 1997 handover to communist China. Largely student-led protesters make nightly appearances in the streets, trying to evade tear gas and police batons as they decry the oft-predicted reality that China’s promises of a hands-off policy toward Hong Kong’s mostly democratic rule are proving empty.
Meanwhile, the journalist’s pal from his university days at Cambridge, scion of a wealthy Hong Kong family, is up to his ears in the duplicity and semi-recklessness peculiar to a certain kind of privilege. The journalist ultimately makes the decision to report on that recklessness when it leads to deadly consequences.
Or did it?
This is the basic setting for Lawrence Obsorne’s latest (August, 2022) novel, “On Java Road.”
Like all fine novelists, Osborne keeps multiple balls in the air. He effortlessly (ha!) combines the moody, multi-faceted atmospherics of travel writing exotica, expat identity, cultural upheaval, low-boil noir suspense, the challenge of aging with relevance, and the nuances of a buddy tale in which the buddies come from wildly divergent class and ethnic backgrounds, bound by their own history but often circling warily around all that separates them—and likely always will.
Called “the bard of modern-day expat noir” by one critic and “the new Graham Greene” by another, the London-born Osborne appears well-qualified to fill the role and that voice. His self-described nomadic life has seen him live and write about extended residencies in Paris, New York, Mexico, Istanbul and (currently) Bangkok.
Long divorced (“We got married too young. We were children.”), he has since lived a life not unlike his “On Java Road” protagonist Adrian Gyle. Osborne also spent years as a freelance journalist, reporting from distant outposts for the likes of “The New Yorker,” the “New York Times,” “Gourmet,” “Playboy,” and “Conde Nast Traveler.”
He has sandwiched seven novels and six non-fiction works around those often rent-paying side jobs, with fiction definitely taking precedence in recent years. His 2012 novel, “The Forgiven,” vaulted him into prominence on both sides of the Atlantic even before it was made into a 2021 movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain.
Adrian, meanwhile, is beset—but not overly so, because his ennui just won’t countenance too much fretting—by the self-acknowledged fact that his energy and skills are flagging.
That tale was based on every traveler’s nightmare: a comfortably middle class and tipsy couple from the West run their rental car over a local boy after leaving a party in the mountains of Morocco. An almost predictably tense hell of culture clash follows.
Culture clash but also the complexities of trust and loyalty on a personal friendship level are prominent themes of “On Java Road,” as Adrian and his friend Jimmy Tang do an intermittent slow dance of meet-and-retreat.
Jimmy is coddled by too much money, and rather than spending it on the even more precious time for good works that his money could buy him, he instead throws it at expensive booze, boats, clothes, women and “friends”—including Adrian— who benefit from his largesse.
He’s one of those rich people who power through any polite “No, thank you” resistance with his absolute determination to spend an unconscionable amount of money buying you exquisite tailored suits you’d never consider, or rare French wines your palate can’t possibly appreciate after a long night visiting waterside bars via boat piloted by a sober driver on 24-hour call.
That said, he is also long besotted by the ancient Chinese poem by Li Bai, “The Exile’s Letter,” over which he and Adrian had bonded back at university in a never consummated quest to produce a new translation. (We should also note here the legend that Li-Bai passed from this life while drunk and reaching out to hug the moon during a float down the Yangtze River. (Right: people—romantics most of all—are complicated…)
Adrian, meanwhile, is beset—but not overly so, because his ennui just won’t countenance too much fretting—by the self-acknowledged fact that his energy and skills are flagging. Twenty years have passed and he is not escaping the dawning realization that his comfy days of sitting in Hong Kong cafes lightly considering story ideas while sipping espressos and slurping noodle bowls until the afternoon calls for more potent fare are almost certainly coming to a close.
Near the novel’s end, it’s Jimmy who poses the following questions that just as easily could have come from Adrian and anyone else whose sun is beginning its descent, with time, finally, to begin contemplating the answers in earnest:
“We were better then, weren’t we? Who was it who said if you want to know how you’ve done in your life tell your eighteen-year-old self in the mirror whether you have disappointed him or lived up to his expectations.”
“It’s not a conversation I’d want to have,” Adrian replies.
Whether he wants it or not, one suspects as this finally wrought tale comes to a close that Adrian will be turning it over through the rest of his days.
For a revealing, in-depth, and only slightly dated interview with Osborne, see the ever-engaging British newspaper “The Guardian.”
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