A FULL-TIME author since 1999, Australian-born Carol Jones was penning only young adult novels and children’s books before finally taking the plunge with her first adult novel, The Concubine’s Child, which was published in 2018.
The book garnered favourable reviews especially in the way she captured 1930s Malaya in a story that revolves around two female protagonists from different eras.
The first tells the heart-wrenching story of a girl forced to be a wealthy towkay’s concubine when the first wife was unable to give him an heir.
Jones has now come out with her second adult novel, The Boy With Blue Trousers, which is set in the mid-1800s and also features two female protagonists from vastly different backgrounds.
The first story begins in 1856 in China with 18-year-old Little Cat forced to flee her family home at the Pearl River Delta after she kills the lecherous village headman Wu in self-defence.
Forced to escape Wu’s son (referred to as Young Wu), who has vowed to avenge his father’s death, Little Cat disguises herself as a man to make the long and difficult passage to Australia.
Around the same time, Englishwoman Violet Hartley arrives in Australia, determined to build a new life after a scandal back home.
However, after tragedy strikes, Violet decides to follow the man she is determined to marry to a mining town.
There, Violet’s and Little Cat’s paths cross and, despite their differences, their journey is ultimately about survival.
It has been a year since I last met Jones, who had then come down to Kuala Lumpur to launch The Concubine’s Child.
This time around, we spoke over the phone with Jones at home in Melbourne.
Asked about the idea that sparked off this book, Jones said: “In The Concubine’s Child, one of the amahs in the story comes from the Pearl River region. That idea really struck me and I wanted to find out more.”
It was while doing her research that she created Little Cat.
Jones said: “I came up with the idea of Little Cat, a young woman ... who wanted to come over here (Australia). She wanted to be a celibate, not be tied down, and she wants to make a living and help her family.
“I haven’t been to Guangdong province (where Pearl River system is located), but I have been to Fujian province where my husband’s family comes from.
“We went down on one of those rafts that I describe in the book. I visited little houses similar to the ones in her village and larger houses like the Wus’ house.”
Little Cat’s story is compelling because she is pursued by a man who is conflicted about his feelings towards her.
“I have always loved those star-crossed lovers’ stories like Romeo & Juliet and Wuthering Heights,” Jones admitted. “The two lovers are separated by insurmountable odds.
“I was exploring how Little Cat and Young Wu might develop a love despite the differences that come between them. I think that if there is this big gap between lovers, the love story will be even more emotional.”
Violet, on the other hand, was inspired by unlikeable heroines from Jones’ favourite books.
Jones told us that her editor advised her to make Violet a little more likeable.
“I think at first she did not have enough redeeming qualities. In my head, she [did]. The odds were stacked against her and she was willing to do anything to survive. She has had to become predatory, assertive and unforgiving in some ways.
“I did not know how to put it on the page but through the editorial process ... I had to find ways to make her more palatable and likeable to the reader. I did that by showing her kind heart when she was nursing men in unpleasant circumstances.”
That doesn’t mean Violet is a sweetheart in the book. There are things about her that will still make readers wince.
Jones is currently working on another book but has no idea when it will be published.
“It is set in England and Australia and is more of a book with a dual-timeline. It is a mystery [surrounding] a family [drama].”
In the meantime, she is also doing research for another book to be set in England and the South Pacific.
The Boy With Blue Trousers.