Pao, By Kerry Young

The gangster who just wants to be loved
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The Independent Culture

Kerry Young's energetic debut novel is a pacy but absorbing saga of domestic struggle and gangland manoeuvring set against the violent backdrop of postwar Jamaican politics.

The plot revolves around the fortunes of the family that controls Kingston's Chinatown, and seems to have absorbed plenty of colour and texture from Young's own mixed-heritage upbringing in Kingston.

Invited to Jamaica by Chinese elders in 1912, to protect Chinese interests from local hostility, Zhang brings with him his anti-imperialist disgust at the British exploitation of China during the opium wars. By the time 14-year-old Pao arrives in 1938, sent from China after his father died fighting for the revolution, Zhang is an influential and respected figure, willingly given protection premiums by local businesses and steadily profiting from gambling operations. Pao learns quickly and is groomed as a successor, despite Uncle Zhang's distaste for Pao's protection of Gloria, a straight-talking brothel madame.

Gloria's affection for Pao sours when he marries Fay Wong for her father's wealth. Fay is equally shocked by Pao's hoodlum lifestyle, and miserable without the privileges of her upbringing; her vituperous behaviour causes the emotional upset at the heart of this surprisingly moving novel.

Murder, corruption, blackmail, kidnap and incest drive the narrative, but Young keeps much of the gory detail offstage, or muted in report. Similarly, the mechanics of how Pao's empire operates – in the pink in one chapter and short of cash a few pages later – are vague – often unconvincingly so, which is one of this novel's few flaws. The gangland skirmishes and police chicanery keep the plot ticking over, but are just a backdrop to the progress of Pao's personal relationships.

And there's no shortage of material there: Pao's philosophical approach to problem solving is sorely tried by Fay's efforts to extract herself from his fiefdom, and wrangling over children vexes all parties. Pao assiduously builds alliances with Fay's mother, sister, priest and maid in increasingly desperate attempts to secure his marriage. And he strives to defend the generosity of spirit of his shadowy business decisions, which makes an interesting ethical thread on its own. Gloria's pithy input on this strikes hard, and sharpens Pao's grasp of the fundamental divisions of class, race and cultural identity that define all their lives.

Young deploys snippets from Sun Tzu's The Art of War as chapter headings, which underlines the extent to which Pao's domestic strategy is a campaign to be waged more fiercely than his racketeering. Regular glances at the escalating violence within Jamaican society, as 1962's independence celebrations give way to financial restructuring and crushing unemployment, anchor Pao's fortunes to a landscape of volatile social unrest. Foregrounding Pao's personal travails against Jamaica's complex and deep-seated conflicts gives panoramic depth to this punchy tale of pungent characters and impassioned entanglements.