What’s it all about?:
Maugham spent the winter months of 1919 travelling fifteen hundred miles up the Yangtze river. Always more interested in people than places, he noted down acute and finely crafted sketches of those he met on countless scraps of paper. In the resulting collection we encounter Western missionaries, army officers and company managers who are culturally out of their depth in the immensity of the Chinese civilisation. Maugham keenly observes, and gently ridicules, their dogged and oblivious persistence with the life they know.
What did I think?:
This short book reads more like a series of journal entries than anything else, noting the differences in Chinese society at that time and how Westerners tend to cope with it. These are a series of snapshots into different individuals that could have been sketches for stories themselves. I’ve only ever read one other Maugham book (Christmas Holiday) which I loved, but I have to admit, I didn’t really get on with this book at all. On finishing it, I feel slightly confused over what it was all about, and the only entries I can remember vividly are the ones where he talks about the Chinese labourers or “coolies” as they were known at that time. When he talks about the loads that they carry, and the work that they carry out, I found it quite moving and probably would have preferred to read more about that than missionaries or pompous army officers, no matter how ridiculous he made them.
I’m definitely going to read more by Maugham, I have Of Human Bondage coming up fairly shortly and am looking forward to it, but I’m afraid this book wasn’t for me. The slightly generous rating I have given it is based on the strength of Maugham’s writing and the beauty of his descriptions.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):