On Java Road Is a Book About Adrian Gyle, an English Journalist in Hong Kong

From a Wall Street Journal review by Tom Nolan of the book by Lawrence Osborne titled “On Java Road”:

The narrator of Lawrence Osborne’s latest novel, “On Java Road,” is Adrian Gyle, an English journalist who has lived for two decades in Hong Kong. “I’m a dreary person’s dreary person,” he says of himself. But his home base, which until recently felt “as if time had stood still since about 1970,” is suddenly much livelier and dangerous, with violent protests in the streets as the Chinese impose stricter controls over the populace.

The most reassuring constant in Adrian’s Hong Kong tenure has been his friendship with Jimmy Tang, member of one of the city’s wealthiest families, and an old Cambridge classmate of Adrian’s. “He was a millionaire socialite,” Adrian relates. “I was a struggling—and one could fairly say declining—reporter. [But] even when we were undergraduates . . . we had shared some kind of mental territory that was invisible to other people. Tenuously, we still did.”

But Jimmy, married to a woman whose family has business ties to his own, has introduced a problematic complication into his life: a covert relationship with Rebecca, a well-to-do young member of the protest movement. “I’m fascinated by the anarchy” in the streets, Jimmy tells Adrian. “It’s like the birth of a new religion.” The social, economic and political consequences for Jimmy and his family, should he be linked publicly with a protest leader, are chilling to contemplate.

For whatever reason, Jimmy breaks with Rebecca—publicly and noisily, in a well-known restaurant. Soon after, Rebecca disappears. Adrian seeks Jimmy’s input, but his old friend has stopped returning his calls. An awful thought occurs: Might Rebecca’s be the latest of many bodies fished out of the harbor in these tempestuous days? “Most of them [were] young, most of them women . . . classified as suicides. Some of them were. But all?” Adrian begins a discreet private investigation, despite his nervous editor’s warning: “It’s usually a bad idea to pursue your own curiosity.”

Mr. Osborne, in his 2018 book “Only to Sleep,” imagined Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe as an older man in the year 1988. “On Java Road” evokes the themes and tropes of other classic writers, with echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Graham Greene’s “The Third Man.” Mr. Osborne turns those references upside-down, subverting expectations of characters’ behavior and story resolution. Genre purists may be disappointed by the novel’s somewhat open-ended nature, but those receptive to its elegant writing and intelligent pleasures will be richly rewarded.

Tom Nolan is a contributing writer and book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal.

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