Chloe Gong, These Violent Delights (book #1), Hodder & Stoughton, December 2020, 273 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781529344554
A love like theirs was never going to survive in a city divided by hatred.
When I read the blurb for These Violent Delights, I was excited by something fresh: a mash-up of a Romeo & Juliet retelling, set in the exotic location of Shanghai in the 1920s. Add to this mix two gangs in the midst of a blood feud…and a monster who is a harbinger of madness.
Chloe Gong loves her words, and she is a skillful wordsmith. In the prologue she describes Shanghai as filthy and deep in the thrall of unending sin, so saturated with the kiss of decadence that the sky threatens to buckle and crush all those living vivaciously beneath it in punishment. She has fun referencing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Romeo Montague becomes Roma Montagov (from Russian descent), his kinsman Mercutio becomes Marshall; Benvolio becomes Benedikt…you get the picture. Even Juliet’s beloved nurse gets a minor role.
However, a lot of words are used, and a lot of time is spent explaining the struggle for political control of the city of Shanghai and the damage done by colonialism. There are the two rival gangs, the Communists, the Unions, the Chinese, the British, the French. And just in case you didn’t understand her first explanation, Gong continues to explain the politics of Shanghai again, and again, and again. I found it repetitive, and I wonder how a young adult audience will respond. Also, her analogies can be bordering on the absurd: His voice was gravel against rubber. It was the collision of a ship against the coastal rocks that would take it down with all its mens – In my opinion it’s just too much.
Meanwhile, back to the plot: our star-crossed lovers decide to join forces to find who is responsible for unleashing the monster that is spreading a contagious madness through the city that is killing ‘their people’. This contagion is carried by bugs that sound disconcertingly like cockroaches, that bore into people’s brain and send them mad! Roma and Juliet spend an inordinate amount of time running through the different precincts the city (all described in minute detail), literally in circles searching for the creator of this monster. (And if I read about the sound of Juliet’s heels clicking on hard surfaces once, I read it a half dozen times – urgh!) And, of course, their true feelings for each other rise to the surface amidst all the riots and bloodshed!
I have no argument with Gong’s skill as a storyteller. However, she requires a fearless editor. She includes way too much unnecessary information; whole paragraphs describing a building visited once and never heard of again is just one example. Her characters are well drawn; who isn’t attracted to a strong female role model who can pack several concealed weapons and still look elegant?
On page 439 we are confronted by a cliffhanger and ‘to be continued’, so this volume is definitely not a stand alone book.
These Violent Delights is not for the faint-hearted. It contains graphic violence (and brain-eating bugs), so I would recommend it for older readers: 14/15 years +. As you can see from my review, I have very mixed feelings about this debut novel. I hope Gong finds her literary feet in the second instalment (and a ruthless editor), cuts back on the word-count and gets on with the story.
Reviewed by Gaby Meares