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‘Pao’ by Kerry Young

Pao by Kerry Young

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2012.

Kerry Young’s Pao tells the story of Jamaica’s history through the eyes of Yang Pao, a teenage boy who emigrates from China with his mother and brother after the death of his father in the  Second Sino-Japanese War.

It charts Pao’s life over the next 40 or so years and shows how he rises to become the gangland boss of Chinatown, inheriting the role from Zhang, his father’s friend who sent for their passage in 1938.

Written in a hypnotic Jamaican patois, it is this forthright, rhythmic voice that brings both Pao and Jamaica to life.

A charming but fallible hero

Using Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a code by which to live his life, Pao comes across as a likeable and charming man, but he is a complex and deeply flawed individual.

This is best expressed by his attitude to women: at the same time he marries Fay, the headstrong, mixed race daughter of a wealthy Chinese merchant, he commences a lifelong affair with Gloria, a black prostitute, with whom he falls in love. He manages to juggle these two relationships relatively successfully, fathering children by both women without them knowing of the others’ existence, all the while carving a successful smuggling and protection racket that turns him into a rich and powerful man.

I was torn by Pao. I loved the intimate nature of his voice, but he’s an unreliable narrator, dropping the odd hint here and there of his tendency towards violence, but because his gangland activities happen largely off the page it’s easy to fall for his charm. And he *is* charming, always ready to help others in need, whether financially or otherwise.

The most interesting aspect of the book, however, lies in its vivid portrait of an inter-racial society and the shaping of Jamaican history between 1938 to 1980. This period covers British rule and the turbulent period that followed after independence was granted in 1962.

Sometimes when Pao is talking about the political situation he loses his patois, so it feels a bit like the author has shoehorned these bits in from her research, but on the whole I much enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the follow-up, Gloria, which takes in Gloria’s side of the story, and Show Me a Mountain, which is told from Fay’s point of view.

Pao was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2011.