Lawrence Osborne’s novels are easy to admire. They tend to deal with characters trapped in morally questionable situations and their backdrops, from Macau to Greece, are often glamorous and exotic. Like any British novelist who deals with morality in foreign places, he gets compared with Graham Greene, but On Java Road, his sixth novel, owes much to Patricia Highsmith too. At its heart is a crime – the disappearance of a young woman in contemporary Hong Kong – but this, as much as anything, is a structural device on which to hang an examination of moral courage. What, Osborne asks, is required to protect democracy when doing so comes with great risk?
Adrian Gyle, the likeable narrator, is a reporter who has slogged his way to mediocrity in Hong Kong (‘I was an excellent nonentity,’ he remarks). Early in the novel, he describes the job of a reporter as ‘transcribing what he sees’ (journalists do something different, he thinks) and, initially at least, it is clear he is interested in surface details. He says things like: ‘Clothes were never trivial to him, as they never are to truly serious people.’
His closest friend is Jimmy Tang, a scion of a wealthy family whose charm and connections have given him a good life and who treats Adrian to parties and nice restaurants. They share a love of Chinese literature, particularly the poetry of Li Bai, but Osborne wants us to see that their friendship isn’t as solid as it seems and that what they value is quite different. Whereas Adrian thinks that ‘words are the most efficient vessel for carrying the seeds of violence’, Jimmy thinks that they ‘came cheaply to most people and so constituted a debased coinage’.
The background to this complicated friendship is Hong Kong, which is tense as the pro-Beijing government cracks down on pro-democracy protests and eliminates the free press. Living in the city means having to take a side. Beijing offers stability and families like Jimmy’s are ‘mostly pro-China in their views’ for this reason. The expats are, in theory, neutral but get annoyed when students destroy ‘branches of Starbucks licensed to Maxim’s Caterers… [who] were reviled for their sympathies with Beijing’. When Jimmy’s mistress, a young protester called Rebecca who ‘simmered… with resistance to everything around her’ goes missing, Adrian has to choose whether to dig deeper into what happened and risk upsetting his comfortable, if uninspiring, life, including by learning something awful about his friend. But Rebecca has seen something in him: ‘You’re not as sad as your close friends think you are. You stand up for yourself without anyone noticing,’ and much of the novel is concerned with what is at risk to do this and get noticed.
Osborne is an ambitious novelist and this is more than just a story about courage in Hong Kong. Throughout, Adrian opines on America’s ongoing struggles – ‘journalists in our own countries were being silenced and curtailed on a daily basis’ – and the implication is that what is happening in Hong Kong and what is happening in America and Britain are two sides of the same coin. In the end Adrian concludes that his friendship with Jimmy is ‘light as a spiderweb’ and it is clear that Osborne is wondering whether our commitment to democracy is any stronger. Democracy and freedom of the press require courage. Does Adrian have that kind of courage? Do we? Osborne is too clever a writer to reach a conclusion but the overall effect of this timely, elegantly written novel is unsettling and concerning.