Historical Fiction




Reeman, Douglas. (1994).  Sunset. London: Heinemann.

Sunset  is a war time story set in Hong Kong which celebrates the valor and courage of a group of British naval officers aboard the ship HMS Serpent during the Japanese invasion of the colony. The novel begins in Scapa Flow where a battle-scarred and cynical Esmond Brooke takes command of HMS Serpent, a venerable destroyer in the Royal Navy fleet and the former command of his distinguished father. Brooke discovers that his is resented by his secondincommand, Richard Kerr, who has been  overlooked for the command. The ship also has onboard Toby Calvert, a navy pilot decorated with the Medal of Valor for his bravery in a sea battle in the Mediterranean — an event that has left Calvert emotionally scarred after witnessing the destruction of his ship and the death of his entire fellow crew.

HMS Serpent is sent for duty in Hong Kong — a journey  which sees Brooke reconciling with Kerr and both Brooke and Culvert finding love. Events during the Japanese invasion also prove to be a redemptive experience as the ship and its crew achieve a rare victory in a situation where the British military finds itself completely unprepared for the swiftness and intensity of the Japanese assault. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, Brooke discovers that the colony is isolated from the realities of war in Europe, and that high officials are either complacent or willfully ignorant about the possibility of a Japanese threat.

Brooke falls in love with Lian Yeung, the British-educated daughter of Charles Yeung, a wealthy Hong Kong entrepreneur financing Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces against the Japanese in China. Brooke meets her through his brother Jeremy, a naval intelligence officer who is portrayed as part of the colonial bureaucracy that is aware of the Japanese threat but chooses to keep the public ignorant about it and also does nothing to try and prevent the  invasion— because of the view that the British should not be involved in what is largely a Japanese-Chinese conflict.  This contrasts with Brooke and Yeung who are both shown to be committed to Hong Kong’s security, and perceive the dangers of this policy of non-involvement. The bureaucratic refusal to recognize the Japanese threat is specifically highlighted in an incident where the HMS Serpent encounters a Japanese submarine but the naval command in Hong Kong refuses to accept the evidence.

The final sequences of the novel depict the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. HMS Serpent is the only naval ship left defending Hong Kong with orders not to surrender. The ship attempts to escape Hong Kong waters and is almost caught in a Japanese ambush but is saved by the bravery of Calvert. Calvert flies a seaplane that he has been repairing for Charles Yeung directly at a Japanese destroyer, and gives sufficient time for HMS Serpent to fire torpedoes at and blow up the Japanese ship;   the British sailors experience a rare sense of triumph amidst heavy losses. Calvert dies along with Sue, a young British naval officer he has fallen in love with, . Charles Yeung decides to remain  in Hong Kong but his daughter, now betrothed to Brooke, is sent to England for safety.

The novel ends with an epilogue where Brooke, Liang and their daughter return to post-war Hong Kong. The scene depicts Brooke standing below the cenotaph in Central commemorating the war-dead, reading that Charles Yeung had been killed by the Japanese and also reminiscing the sacrifices made by British troops in defending Hong Kong. The novel commemorates the co-operation between the British and Hong Kong Chinese against an external enemy but as its title suggests, this co-operation is drawing to a close.  (HR)

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