Paul Blaney: Handover

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It may seem a straight-up read about expats during the handover but all is not as it seems in Paul Blaney’s world, as Sung Bale discovers

Sex, drugs and a woman who retreats into her own walk-in closet. What’s going on in Paul Blaney’s mind? The British-born resident of Pennsylvania, USA, has been feeding us with his short fiction and novellas for 14 years, regaling readers with the charades of lousy marital sex and dysfunctional tales of Western families and relationships. So why has he chosen our fragrant harbour as the setting for his latest offering, Handover? The author takes a deep breath and rattles off a list: “Steel, glass, concrete, bamboo, humidity, rainstorms, typhoons, sunsets, mountains, the harbour, skyscrapers, temples, markets, restaurants, parks, neon, aircon, conspicuous wealth, trams, ferry boats, taxis, planes…” He pauses before adding, excitedly: “Hong Kong is thrilling. It’s vividly alive.”
The writer-in-residence at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey lived here either side of the 1997 handover and his new tome, just published, chronicles the lives of three expat Britons pre and post the big event. Don’t expect any tongue-in-cheek colonial clichés though. By the second half of the novel, one character is face down in Macau’s harbour and another is behind bars. “The theme of the book goes beyond Hong Kong,” explains Blaney. “It’s a study of the expatriate tribe. I’m interested in how people behave – and misbehave – when you take them out of their native environment.”
One of the characters, the young and impressionable Tess, moves to Hong Kong out of a compulsive desire to jumpstart her life. Her unplanned arrival will resonate with expats who similarly moved to Asia without any concrete idea of what to expect. “My characters are always compounds of different people I’ve encountered – and of myself, too, of course – who’ve struck me in one way or another,” says Blaney. Incidentally, he doesn’t plan or sketch out character studies, he says. The other two characters in Handover are an older, disillusioned lady and a man disconnected from the environment he’s in. “You take a character and put him or her in a situation, and then you ask yourself ‘what would he or she do here’? What sort of thing would they say?” says Blaney of his writing process. “With any luck, they surprise you.”
The surprises that occur in Handover echo the twists and turns that befell Hong Kong after 1997. “I remember a lot of rain and a lot of fireworks,” says Blaney, recalling the handover event. “There was a strange sense of being a part of history, the eyes of the world turned on Hong Kong – and yet not really being a part of it at the same time. I was mostly just watching it on TV like everyone else.”
Blaney lived on Lamma pre-handover and still remembers the island as ‘a little enclave that attracted an interesting range of people’. It’s perhaps his astute and almost anthropological eye for detail that makes him so popular with readers across the world. Gritty and unrelenting, Handover stares conflict in the eye – Hong Kong’s still prevalent East-West divide, the clashing identity crises and sexual harassment – while, at the same time, painting a Wong Kar Wai-esque portrait of the city we all know and love. “I wrote Handover from the perspectives of three British expatriates,” he says. “That’s a perspective I understand – and the one with which I was mostly familiar with during my time in Hong Kong. But I hope plenty of Hong Kong locals will read Handover and tell me what they think of my version of Hong Kong.”
Blaney has just released a (free!) collection of short stories to coincide with Handover, titled Hellbent (you can find out for yourself what that’s about…), and he’s also working on some shorter pieces.
And the walk-in closet recluse? Well, that’s just another one of Blaney’s ideas for a future novel – along with a study of men having children. We look forward to more glimpses into the author’s world. Written, of course, in his inimitable style...

Handover is published by Signal 8 Press and is available as an e-book, priced $47.

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