A Hundred Suns – Karin Tanabe
A Hundred Suns is a probing story of avarice, power, revenge and colonial politics set in French Indochina in the 1930s. Jessie Lesage and her husband, heir to the Michelin business empire, Victor Michelin Lesage, arrive in Vietnam amidst a global recession to manage the Michelin rubber plantations and grow their fortune.
Karin Tanabe paints a vivid picture of the French colonial masters living a profuse lifestyle of opium, glamour and sex, while ordinary plantation ‘coolies’, work in dire conditions and live in poverty. The ordinary people dream of independence and communism starts to exert an influence as a means of change.
“The most important thing, taking precedence over everything else, is that the plantations continue to make money. If we don’t have profit, we can’t even feed our men. The second priority, which is equal and forever linked to the first, is to keep the communist element from rising up.”
Jessie knows she has to support her husband, so after a few years, they can return to Paris a success. She does, however, battle mental issues, some held in secret from her past, some new distressing episodes, and a lifestyle of pleasure and gossip makes exposure much more of a reality. Jessie meets another glamourous woman, Marcelle de Fabry, and their delicate relationship progresses on a fine line between friend and foe.
Marcelle is married to a French ex-pat, Arnaud, but has a closer relationship with her Indochinese lover, Khoi Nguyen whom she first met years previously in Paris. Marcelle has a quest to return Vietnam to independence and her first target is the Michelin rubber plantation business. With private investigators seeking evidence of wrongdoing, they uncover secrets they didn’t expect. The story is told from the perspectives of Jessie and Marcelle, both are influenced significantly by their past and both struggle with conflicting ambitions and previous obligations. The suspense is built with schemes and secrets being uncovered, although I did feel it unrealistic at times with some plot holes. The female characters provided a good variation in circumstances, although Marcelle did provide a more intriguing background that provided glimpses into the issues facing the region at the time.
In a time when Indochina’s indigenous people struggled with colonial rule and geared itself for a war of independence, the story embeds itself in the unrestrained immoral antics surrounding the aristocratic set and personal revenge. I wish the novel could have provided a more compelling thread in terms of the deeper political and social powder keg, which contributed to the outbreak of the Vietnam War twenty years later.
I had an expectation starting this historical fiction novel that wasn’t fully realised but I still felt it was a well-written novel with mystery and suspense, and may resonate better with other readers. I would like to thank St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC copy in return for an honest review.