In a city full of thieves and Communists, danger and death, spirited young Lydia Ivanova has lived a hard life. Always looking over her shoulder, the sixteen-year-old must steal to feed herself and her mother, Valentina, who numbered among the Russian elite until Bolsheviks murdered most of them, including her husband. As exiles, Lydia and Valentina have learned to survive in a foreign land.
Often, Lydia steals away to meet with the handsome young freedom fighter Chang An Lo. But they face danger: Chiang Kai Shek’s troops are headed toward Junchow to kill Reds like Chang, who has in his possession the jewels of a tsarina, meant as a gift for the despot’s wife. The young pair’s all-consuming love can only bring shame and peril upon them, from both sides. Those in power will do anything to quell it. But Lydia and Chang are powerless to end it.
The Russian Concubine, the debut novel of Kate Furnivall, was inspired by the story of her own mother who was a Russian refugee. As a young child, Lydia and her mother, Valentina, were forced to flee from the Bolsheviks and ended up in Junchow, China, where they have to struggle without money and papers. From a young age, Lydia has had to learn to survive by stealing and pawning the stolen items because Valentina is barely capable of looking after herself, let alone Lydia. Yet, Junchow is a dangerous place as opium gangs roam the streets and opposing political parties fight for domination.
When Lydia is accosted in the street by members of the Black Snakes gang, she is rescued by a young Chinese communist, Chang An Lo, with whom she soon becomes infatuated. Their paths cross again when Chang An Lo is embroiled in the theft of a Russian ruby necklace which leads to him being captured by Feng Tu Hong, the feared leader of the Black Snakes. Chang An Lo is tortured but manages to escape and Lydia nurses him back to health before their relationship becomes intimate.
Lydia is an amazing character who has had to rely on her own wits to survive her childhood as her mother is too busy wallowing in her own self pity. The hardships have instilled Lydia with great strength and resilience, however she is far from perfect as her temper often gets the better of her and she has a stubborn nature which often results in poor decision making. Lydia is used to running free on the streets of Junchow, so she is dismayed when her mother opts to marry a British journalist to ensure their security. Lydia knows her mother doesn’t love Alfred Parker but Valentina is tired of being alone and wants a man to care for her. The independent Lydia chafes at the restrictions her new stepfather tries to impose on her but they soon reach an agreement which leads to a truce.
While most of the story is told from Lydia’s point of view, some of the other characters do get to have their own narrative but I think Valentina’s character is done a great disservice by not getting this courtesy. In this book, Valentina comes across as a detestable character, mainly because she seems entirely unable to care for herself without the presence of a man in her life and she measures up poorly against her far more capable Lydia. I had little patience for Valentina’s selfishness and didn’t feel I understood her until she was given her own story in The Jewel of St Petersburg. Maybe this is deliberate on the author’s part but I think it is a shame Valentina is so unsympathetic considering the tragedies that unfold.
One of the other main characters is Theo Willoughby, Lydia’s teacher, who had lived in China for a number of years and has developed an opium addiction. Theo gets dragged into the criminal activities of the Black Snakes, mainly because he is sleeping with the Li Mei, the estranged daughter of Feng Tu Hong, who loves him unconditionally. Sometimes it is difficult to see why we even need Theo’s plot line but I do wish more attention had been paid to his romance with Li Mei. In fact, Li Mei deserved a bigger role regardless of her romance with Theo.
However, my biggest peeve is the title as the word concubine generally refers to a woman who has intimate relations with a married man and has a lower status than his wife or wives which does not accurately describe either Lydia’s relationship with Chang An Lo or even her mother’s affairs with married men. The book was released as The Girl of Junchow in markets outside the UK and it is a far more fitting title.