The Secret Mandarin – Sara Sheridan

Mary Penney is “dragged three thousand miles on account of an illegitimate child and a talent for the stage”. Her penance is to go to Hong Kong and be married off and never to see her son or England again. After a false start, she is forced to accompany her brother in law, Robert Fortune on his mission to China to obtain tea plants. Robert is less than pleased, and makes Mary suffer along the journey. In a twist of fate Mary finds the strength to forget her past and indulges in everything she is learning on this journey and has reserves that even Robert did not know she possessed. As the journey comes to an end with adventure a turn of fortune means that life changes for them all.

I was attracted to this book by the blurb on the back, it had something that appealed to me from the history student in myself and I thought I would learn about nineteenth century China the culture and people, botany, tea growing and the opium wars.  I did learn something but I felt what I did learn was padded out with the ineffectual characters of Mary Penney and Robert Fortune. I did not realise until I reached the end of the book, that Fortune is in fact a real person and has been used to create this piece of “faction”.  There is not much made of Roberts involvement with the British Forces and his apparent spying (according to the blurb), it was very much glossed over as if its mention was supposed to give the character more depth.

I leave this book feeling rather disappointed and that actually it could have been a real page turner, but it was lacklustre and weak. A sudden need to incorporate all the research done into the book at the detriment of losing the plot, characters and pace of the storyline. I will be wary of picking up another of her novels.

I did have high hopes for this book and I thought I would be getting something like The Sandalwood Tree a cracking story, a culture new to me and history thrown in. I suppose I got all of that, but actually it was all rather weak and insipid. I felt cheated from reading this book, it was not paced enough for me to keep turning the pages because I was enthralled with the story. 

Another helpful part of the book would have been some sort of map, so it would have been easy to try and place visually the distance they were travelling. I was pleased that they put at the end that in fact Robert Fortune was a real person, and did in fact discover that black and green tea came from the same plant (this for me was not made much of in the book). In the world of Botany, Fortune’s name is a prevalent one and I feel that perhaps if he knew his story was being played a bit fast and loose with he may not be best pleased. 

If you have read this book I would be interested to hear your thoughts.