Mohawk’s Brood by Amanda Prantera
13 August, 2014
I only heard of Amanda Prantera a few months into this year as I happened upon a few reviews of her new book Mohawk’s Brood, a historical novel covering a sprawling English family with roots in Shanghai, a premise I eagerly lapped up. And so I was really excited to be offered a review copy from the publisher. What with work and family commitments all happening in the last three months, I’ve only just got to Mohawk’s Brood and now I wish I had known about Prantera before. Because although Mohawk’s Brood is a historical novel, Prantera has also written novels in other genres, gothic, mystery, literary, werewolves. I like an author with unpinnable styles.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of several members of Mohawk’s extended family (both related by blood and not) starting with Mohawk (Henry), the patriarch who built an extensive empire beginning with his newspaper in Shanghai and branching out into racing horses, property and other ventures. After he returns to England with his family, leaving behind his eldest son Harry to take over the helm of his broadsheet empire, he concentrates on educating his remaining children (a total of nine including Harry) and plotting his family’s rise through the ranks and into the aristocracy. This isn’t easy as nothing is valued highter than blood even though you may have rivers of money flowing out of your ears. And it doesn’t help if you are Catholic. There is Little Ida, his eldest daughter, who has a brush with romance that is cruelly thwarted and yearning for a life, any life, and battling jealousy of her beautiful sister-in-law. Her younger sister Noël, singled out by her mother, Big Ida, to look after her and therefore remain single (even crueler). And Harry’s brothers, Lester who is training to be an architect, Tom, a budding socialist, Edwin, not quite right in the head, Neville, the naughty one, and Jack, the baby of the family. And then there is Rebecca, Harry’s sad and lonely wife, whose only deliverance is her son Sasha, who may also be the answer to Mohawk’s prayers.
Through their eyes and thoughts, Prantera unveils the history of early 20th century Shanghai, with its jazzy politics, refugees, the social whirlwind of expat life and the oncoming menace of the Japanese, aided by the once bright star that was Chiang Kai Shek. The sweep of history is broad and yet the little details inserted by Prantera spring Harry and Rebecca’s Shanghai into life just as much as they dampen the cool and muted life Rebecca then comes back to in England. I wasn’t sure whether the first person point of view would work for everyone, but the short, sharp chapters reveal more than what they intend and works beautifully to provide a capacious picture of a cross-cultural dynasty undergoing great changes and dispersal in their family and fortune along with history. I loved the nuggets of cultural history with which Prantera dots her novel; little details that bring everything into sharp relief. Mohawk’s Brood is a beautifully realised novel of a world that no longer exists. And above all, even though he doesn’t say a word himself, it is Harry who is the locus of Mohawk’s Brood. Harry, who has so many secrets.
Prantera is the author of sixteen novels and I cannot wait to read more by her, especially Strange Loop and Wolfsong.
Thank you Quartet Books for kindly sending me a copy of Mohawk’s Brood to review.