Desert Isle Keeper
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo
What an amuse bouche of a story! In the just ninety pages that comprise The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Zen Cho builds a larger than life portrayal of Jade Yeo, her motivations and her shortcomings. The powerful message of this story is that love is accepting and love is kind. Even if you make a mistake, love does not judge you. Rather than beating readers over the head with this epiphany, the book illustrates it with wry humor and restrained emotion, thus making the revelation all the more impactful.
Geok Huay “Jade” Yeo is a Malay Chinese immigrant eking out a living in 1920s London writing articles and reviews for various magazines and periodicals. While consumer fashion is her bread and butter, she lives for the literary book reviews. She particularly relishes writing a scathing review of the esteemed Sebastian Hardie’s new book in which her every word pointedly eviscerates the main character.
Hardie’s ego cannot stand this denigration of his writing and he seeks to win Jade over by inviting her to a highbrow literary party at his place, where she stands out as the proverbial duck out of water. Oozing charm, he capitalizes on his good looks (in the style of a Romantic poet living in the Lake District) to captivate Jade. When Jade uncomfortably tries to apologize for her review, he says:
“Please don’t apologize. I read your review with great interest, if not precisely pleasure — I’m not quite advanced enough for that, I’m afraid. But it would have been churlish to be offended. A really serious reader is a treasure for any author.”
In the meantime, Ravi, Jade’s editor at the Oriental Literary Review, is the other man in Jade’s life. He’s the typical high-minded scholar, a product of India and Oxbridge, with ink-stained hands, unerring literary judgment, and, according to Jade, perpetually unfocused eyes.
At one point, Jade makes an offhand remark to Ravi and tries to recover, badly, but Ravi is gracious about it.
“Is Sebastian Hardie something of a sacred cow, then?” I said without thinking.
“I wouldn’t quite put it in those terms,” said Ravi carefully.
Of course he is Hindu! He was very nice about it; the next thing he said was, “But yes, in effect.”
But I felt dreadful about it. I haven’t the faintest idea, come to think of it, whether the term comes from the golden calf in the Bible, or whether it is the British being rude about Hinduism.
Jade goes home, perturbed, since Ravi is the last person she would want to offend. He’s one of those genuinely kind and interesting people who sees the good in everyone.
And thus Jade is launched into relationships with two men who are completely disparate from each other. Who will she choose, or won’t she make a choice and dally with them both?
I thoroughly enjoyed the glimpses of Jade’s Chinese Malayan background. She is very much a product of traditional Malaysia and modern England, and her thoughts and actions are governed both by her past and present experiences. It is her orthodox parents and the pressure they put on her to marry as well as her progressive friends that bring about her affair with Hardie. And yet, it is that same conventional background that compels her to seek Ravi as a constant in her life.
The story is mainly written in journal entry format which leads to a candidness of thought and immediacy of voice that is very appealing. Jade’s self-deprecating humor and the ability to look upon the trials and tribulations of her life with savoir faire are very appealing. Having her muse upon her life makes for not just a recounting of her actions but also her reflections on those actions. I enjoyed the introspective, vulnerable nature of the character as painted here.
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is going to stay with me for a long time. For a short tale, it sure packs a punch. I highly recommend it.