Gash, Jonathan. (2004). The Year of the Woman. London: Allison and Busby Limited.

The Year of the Woman is an improbable, light-hearted, comic tale about an orphan girl whose supposed ability to speak to her “Ghost Grandmother” saves her from a life of poverty and deprivation. The time frame of the story is not clear but is possibly mid-1980s or early 1990s Hong Kong with a few passing references to the handover. KwayFay, an orphan girl living in a tin shack on Mount Davis road on Hong Kong island, believes that she speaks to her “Ghost Grandmother”—an ancient ancestor.

Most of the time when she is asleep, KwayFay has conversations with her garrulous ancestor who teaches her ancient customs and lore, and provides her with all kinds of life advice. KwayFay works as a clerk in a financial investment firm run by a temperamental boss named HC. She manages to keep her squatter life hidden from her boss and colleagues. Lacking basic facilities like running water and electricity, KwayFay leads a tough life surviving on the meager salary she earns from HC.

An impromptu excuse she concocts for her boss about a man missing a meeting changes her life; when the man dies in an accident, people begin to believe she has clairvoyant abilities. News of KwayFay’s abilities reach Old Man, a powerful triad boss who assigns people to observe her secretly as he wants to use KwayFay to find a document  he has been searching for. Old Man believes HC has a file that will lead him to a major fortune. HC had promised Old Man that he would use his knowledge in finance and investment to locate this obscure document but has failed to do so. Desperate to avoid the wrath of the triad boss, HC dumps a large stack of files on KwayFay. KwayFay pulls out a random file which turns out be a title deed to a tiny island called Kellett Island which no longer exists because of  land reclamation. However, Old Man’s lawyers discover that the former island, now part of a busy intersection near the Eastern Harbor tunnel, gives Old Man the right to a massive 160years worth of land acquisition compensation from the Hong Kong Government.

Convinced of KwayFay’s abilities, Old Man begins to give her lavish gifts.  Unused to such generosity and wealth, KwayFay is intensely suspicious. The story has a subplot where Linda, HC’s wife, attempts to use KwayFay’s abilities to make a huge horseracing bet  but finds herself tricked by Old Man’s agents. The novel ends with HC falling to his death from his office building—either killed or having committed suicide because of the failure of his company and his inability to repay his debts to Old Man. KwayFay finds herself accepting that she has some form of supernatural ability and agrees to become a kind of advisor to Old Man and the triads.

Though largely comic in tone, the imaging of Hong Kong in The Year of the Woman follows many of the stereotypes found in anglophone populist fiction. Hong Kong society is seen as largely money-minded, corrupt and controlled by the pervasive influence of triads. The “ghost lore” in the story, though comic and ironic, fosters the impression  of a highly superstitious society, and the lore itself reads like the effort of an imaginative tour guide. The attempt to portray the life and interiority of an orphaned squatter girl is highly improbable,  though it contributes to   the comic surreality of the novel as a whole.  (HR)


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