Fairlight Books, Oxford, UK, 2019
In a publishing world where so many vast fictional tomes are being created, it is refreshing to find a novella which manages to say so much so well in an economical 152 pages. The Nail House is at once a study of modern China and the inexorable path of economic growth and development and a cross cultural love story.
The story focuses on Lindon, an Australian property project manager fleeing an unhappy marriage breakup and Zhen, a real estate agent and the daughter of a family holding on to the last property required by the developer to go ahead with a huge building project – hence the term the Nail House (the hold out).
The accompanying cast members admirably hold their own, however – notably Zhen’s Dad, staunchly refusing to give up his home and yield to the dual temptations of money and ‘modernity’. Sun, the fiancé disturbs us from the start, the young Chinese man caught between tradition and modernity.
Lindon, lovelorn, forlorn, wounded, very soon finds that being in China means not only grappling with language but also with cultural differences which affect the way people think and act, both in business and in their personal lives It seems obvious, but if we are travelers we know how confronting this can be in real life.
Zhen also brings pre-conceptions to the relationship – her scorn for the way white people behave bubbles over while at the same time she is drawn intellectually and sensually to Lindon.
Gregory Baines subtly explores a great deal of business skullduggery, ably flipping us between the voices and viewpoints of Lindon and Zhen. Like a crime writer, he drops clues for us about dealing and deception and, like his characters, we must pick up on our gut feelings to decode the depths of human behaviour the author shows us.
This is satisfying fiction – enough action, enough philosophy, enough conflict, spare and well-crafted writing, what seems like a just resolution. It is also a rather disturbing, well observed view of modern China and modern Chinese people – the challenges with globalisation and wealth are ever present in the detail.
The Nail House is available from The Book Depository.