Telling tales of lesser wives

27 Jun 2018 / 11:25 H.

COMBINING events of the past and linking them to the present makes The Concubine’s Child a very interesting read.
Written by Carol Jones, the story begins in 1930s Malaya, where 16-year-old Yu Lan is picked by the wealthy Madam Chan to be the second wife for her husband, the wealthy Towkay Chan.
The Chans desperately want an heir, and Yu Lan’s mahjong-loving father is more than happy to pack Yu Lan, who has had her heart broken by the boy she loves, off to be the Chans’ baby machine.
In her new prison-like home, Yu Lan not only has to contend with a lusty husband, but also a very jealous first wife.
Eventually, the birth of her son drives Yu Lan to take desperate measures.
We are also introduced to another story, set in modern-day London and Kuala Lumpur that revolves around Nick, Yu Lan’s great-grandson, and his wife Sarah.
Throw in a curse, an angry ghost and history repeating itself, and The Concubine’s Child becomes a really compelling read.
This is Jones’ first adult novel though she has been a full-time author since 1999, and has written several young adult novels (Cupid & Co), as well as children’s fiction and non-fiction (It’s True! Women Were Warriors).
Melbourne resident Jones is familiar with Malaysia because her husband was born here, and they come often to visit his relatives here.
I caught up with Jones when she came to Kuala Lumpur to promote The Concubine’s Child, as well as give a talk at the BookFest @ Malaysia 2018.

During the interview, Jones showed me a picture of her husband’s extended family who were at the BookFest event to support her but emphasised that the story was not based on anyone in her husband’s family.
She said that during her book reading session, there were people who came up to her and told her stories about their grandfather who had three wives, and who met people with the same surnames who turned out to be related to different wives of the same man.
Jones pointed out that it was common practice in the olden days among those who were comfortably off.
“The people who’ve read it so far told me they enjoyed it. They love reading something about their own country, strangely by someone who is not even Malaysian.”
The idea to write a book on this subject took seed 25 years ago, but Jones only got to writing it recently.
It then took another year for it to be published.
Jones explained: “I have read a lot of memoirs written by Malaysians. They mention things like concubines, and in an off-hand way, things like ‘the second Lady Chia’, or ‘the third Mrs Tang’.
“I knew that it was quite a common social history among the Chinese in Malaysia. I also know that it is part of the social history of the Malays in Malaysia.
“I started looking into it because I knew about it.
“I searched it not only through memoirs, but also academic works, more about Hong Kong and Singapore, but [which] touched on Malaysia. They were all under the British colonial system at the time.
“The books I was looking into were about how it was done, how it was practised, and also about the law, in terms of inheritance and how [concubines] were recognised.”
In creating Yu Lan, Jones said: “I went the whole way to look at a young girl who had no choice, and how that might play out with her life, especially when she might have dreamed about another life with the young boy she loved.”
There are parallels between some characters in the two timelines in the book, which was intentional, said Jones.
“That’s why I wrote the dual timeline stories, because they are meant to be mirror stories.
“If there was a curse, or if it was just made up in the characters’ heads, it is the reader who has to make up their mind about that.”

Essentially the story is about modern-day women working things out for themselves, to find a solution to a situation that they may not be entirely comfortable with.
“Hopefully, that will end the animosity of the past,” Jones said.

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