Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Book Review: The Rice Paper Diaries

We are lucky in Wales to have a handful of excellent local publishers who publish thoughtful, prosaic works. Seren books have published poet Francesca Rhydderch's first fiction book, 'The Rice Paper Diaries', a fictional account of a Welsh woman's experience of Japan's occupation of Hong Kong in WWII.

the rice paper diaries book review

Though a work of fiction, there are threads of truth - Rhydderch began the story after hearing tales from an Aunt who had been in Hong Kong at the outbreak of war there. Family legend is artfully reformed into a new tale, with new characters and a somewhat harsh reality of lives affected by loss and the complexities of falling in and out of love, let alone the backdrop of a world war. It can be a tricky thing sometimes in spinning a story with painful moments, to not to let them overshadow the moments of beauty, but Rhydderch accomplishes this and left me feeling not melancholy, but hopeful.

There is always a certain appeal to me in reading local authors as I like that sense of familiarity with place names used (Cwmtydu Cove - I was there a few months ago!) and there is a liberal sprinkling of Welsh language to further anchor the epicentre of the story firmly in Wales, despite the Hong Kong connection.

Rhydderch's writing is skilled and wistful and she has obviously researched her subject matter thoroughly. I was unaware of Hong Kong's experience of WWII and it was interesting to hear about the terrifying occupation, especially as I visited Hong Kong many years ago. There can be a temptation with exotic locations to go a bit overboard on descriptions, sometimes at the expense of the story, but here descriptive passages are not only beautifully written but highly focused - I got the feeling of looking through a camera lens at times, that Rhydderch was firmly pointing at the bits she felt were relevant to stop any distraction.
I'm also a stickler for historical accuracy where fashion is concerned and enjoyed some of the descriptions.

The only small detail that slightly niggles me is the inconsistency in the 'voices' - why don't Eleri and Mari get to speak for themselves? Why are they narrated? In fact, assuming that the Chinese servant Ling didn't write her diary herself (she's illiterate) it's interesting then that all three central female characters have their stories filtered through someone else. Jack is the only character who truly gets to relate his story in his own words. How would our perceptions of the characters have changed, if all told their own tales I wonder?

That aside, I very much enjoyed this wonderful book.


  1. Beautiful name for a book, especially one about such a delicate (in the sense of being incredibly uncertain) period in time. I'd love to read this book one day myself. Thank you for giving me a new title to add to my (massive) literary wish list.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. It is indeed beautifully written to match the title Jessica - highly recommend it. P x

  2. That sounds like an interesting book. My great-grandmother evacuated from Burma, but at least she got out...

    1. Oo gosh, I bet she had some stories to tell Mim! Did you get to hear any of them or were they just sort of covered up? Lots of people didn't use to say much at all about their war experiences, I wonder if that was out of respect for others who went through worse? P x


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