The Scarlet Macaw by SP Hozy
reviewed by Rosie Milne | 28 December 2014
The Scarlet Macaw was first published in 2013, by Dundurn Press, in Canada. Monsoon Books has just brought out an edition for Asian markets. The novel is in a long tradition of fiction by Westerners familiar with Asia, and set in Asia, but including few Asian characters. It often alludes to Somerset Maugham’s stylish, and sometimes cruel, short stories documenting the lives of colonial-era Britons struggling in foreign lands.
The novel weaves between the past and the present, and much of it is set in Singapore. It opens in the contemporary city, with the mysterious murder of gallery owner Peter Stone. Peter leaves an old trunk to Maris, a Canadian artist friend. The trunk contains letters, paintings and books.
Author SP Hozy thus sets up a string of questions to drive her multi-stranded plot. Why were the trunk’s contents important to Peter? Why did he leave it to Maris? Why was he murdered? Who murdered him? And what, if anything, had his murder to do with the contents of the trunk? Providing answers to these various questions allows Hozy to introduce and to explore: an historical love triangle; a brief and doomed contemporary romance; the smuggling of animal parts for traditional Asian medicine; and an artist’s continuing journey of self-discovery.
Smuggling explains the mystery of why Peter was murdered. This is not a plot spoiler: Hozy clearly intends the reader to understand this before her characters likewise come to understand it. The international illegal trade in animal parts is being investigated by Interpol’s Axel Thorssen, who is based, temporarily, in Singapore. As soon as he sits down with his local sidekicks to discuss smugglers’ standard operating procedures it becomes obvious why Peter was murdered.
At this point, I also made a guess about who had murdered him—there appears to be only one candidate, a baddie drawn without redeeming nuance. But my guess was wrong—or, at the very least, Hozy leaves it open whether this character was responsible.
Meanwhile, Maris quickly learns the various documents and paintings she’s been bequeathed are all connected to a famous early 20th-century English author, E. Sutcliffe Moresby, who based himself for a time in Singapore. The Scarlet Macaw is told partly through short stories he was inspired to write during his spell in the city, stories which are a blend of fictionalized autobiography, and of fictionalised biography; they include thinly-veiled accounts of, or variations on, the brief marriage of his friends Francis and Annabelle, and of Anabelle’s life after Francis has died.
The character E. Sutcliffe Moresby, Sutty, contains at least a dash of Somerset Maugham. Readers soon learn he was British but he travelled widely in South and South East Asia, including spells in Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, India and Ceylon.
Sutty’s approach to short story writing is as similar to Maugham’s as is his biography. This is from the opening of the first short story Hozy provides in his name:
And I, once it is revealed that I am a writer, have often been the recipient of a story or two, sometimes divulged after much drink, but usually freely given in conversation by someone who is forced, because of the nature of their occupation, to spend many lonely hours away from the company of people, so to talk is a welcome, dare I say it, yearned for pastime.
Later we are told:
[Sutty] usually cast himself in the role of narrator and most of his stories were variations on real events in his own life.
Sutty’s Far Eastern tales have occasional stylistic wobbles—1920s Englishmen use “guess” for “suppose” in the manner of modern North Americans—but they nevertheless evoke a bygone era, of dispirited colonialists exchanging the gossip of the day.
Hozy is interested not only in stories, and their place in people’s lives but also in art. Here is Maris explaining the centrality of art to her existence:
Without art, what was the point of getting up every morning? Of breathing? It all just seemed like waiting for death. Getting through the day was simply moving closer to death. When had getting through the day become a reason for living?
Unfortunately, after Peter has been murdered, Maris loses, for a while, the ability to paint:
She hadn’t been able to paint a thing in the months following Peter’s death. Instead of the vivid colours she was used to seeing, Maris now saw things only in shades of grey. It was like looking at wet concrete through misty rain.
Maris’s artist’s eye is restored only when she goes on a date to the Jurong Bird Park—a tourist attraction in Singapore—with Axel, by now her love interest. Axel has encouraged Maris to bring her sketchbook along; she sees a scarlet macaw, and is inspired to pick up her coloured pencils:
He was glorious; his plumage was blazing at her in red and yellow and blue. The macaw didn’t just speak to her, it shouted at her in vivid tones that made her want to mix the paints right there and create the colours that she was finally seeing again.
Later that same day, Maris and Axel have sex for the first time. Alas, almost immediately things start to go wrong for them; as well as offering meditations on art and stories, The Scarlet Macaw begins to reveal that it is also a meditation on deception, and betrayal.
Indeed, there is so much going on in this novel, readers may feel that Hozy has somewhat over-egged the pudding. Nevertheless, the way she has used stories supposedly by Sutty to tell and to comment on lives now consigned to the past is both interesting and moving; The Scarlet Macaw is well worth reading for this strategy, and these stories.
Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog. She lives in Singapore.
Scarlet Macaw, SP Hozy (Monsoon Books, June 2014; Dundurn, June 2013)
© 2014 The Asian Review of Books.
Hozy's third mystery is a magnificent combination of two stories a century apart. The contemporary mystery begins with the murder of art gallery owner Peter Stone in Singapore. The loss of her mentor devastates artist Maris Cousins. Grieving and unable to paint, she explores the contents of a trunk Peter inexplicably left to her. The books and letters within are all by the early 20th-century British author E. Sutcliffe Moresby. As Maris delves into the mystery of why Peter gave her the trunk, she also begins to piece together the tragic love story of Annabelle Sweet who traveled to Singapore in the 1920s to marry Sutcliffe Moresby's friend. Readers join Maris in the search through the novels and love letters for clues to what links Peter to this historical tragedy. Meanwhile, a charming Swedish officer working with Interpol takes an interest in art and Maris while he investigates a complicated smuggling operation. Hozy skillfully transports readers between the two centuries and builds suspense with questions of who can be trusted.
(excerpted from The Straits Novelists: Boyd Anderson and S.P. Hozy)
While Boyd’s narrative is straightforward and linear, taking us from beginning to end, S.P. Hozy’s book, The Scarlet Macaw, is much more structurally complex. She loves to juggle several story lines and use different narrators because, as she says, ‘a story isn’t one-sided, we need to see things from different perspectives, and hear different voices.’ Singapore is just as much a character in her novel as it is in [Boyd's] Amber Road, but it is in fact the tale of two very different cities – the Singapore of 1920s and the Singapore of the present day. The Scarlet Macaw is also a ‘crossover novel’ – meaning that it combines elements of literary fiction with a murder mystery story.
‘I like to send my characters on a journey’ says Penny Hozy and her heroine, Maris, a Canadian painter, approaching forty, certainly goes on a voyage of self-discovery after the murder, of her mentor, art gallery owner Peter Stone. Maris’s attempt to come to terms with this death leads her to uncover a case of letters and writings from the 1920’s. The historical story, set in the early 1920’s, describes the life of Annabelle, a young English girl who comes to Singapore to get married. He dies within three months of their wedding, leaving her pregnant. Both stories are interwoven and yet complement each other and the novel is a compulsive read, with many surprises along the way.
Penny is sitting with me on the terrace of her Penang apartment which overlooks the sea with a serene view to the Kedah shore beyond. She writes in the sitting room, with the bustle of life going on around her though she took frequent trips to stay with friends in Singapore in order to research the novel. She is already planning her fifth book, to be set in Hong Kong. Coincidently Boyd is also working on his fifth book, which will be set in Penang and Ipoh.
Both novelists came to writing after careers in advertising (Boyd) and editing (Penny) and both are in their ‘second youth’, which leads one to suspect that novel writing isn’t just for the young, and that age and experience in life give the power to write absolutely cracking fiction.
S.P. Hozy divides her time between Malaysia and Toronto, and the split residences enable the deep love and knowledge for the Far East that has come through in her previous three novels. Her latest work of suspense, The Scarlet Macaw (Dundurn, 385 pp; $17.99), not only divides the setting in two, but also switches adroitly between present-day Singapore and Toronto and the Singapore of the 1920s. We learn about the latter time period through letters and stories discovered by the novel’s artist heroine, Maris Cousins, who has good reason to distract herself: Her mentor and friend Peter Stone, a renowned gallery owner in Singapore, has died suddenly, and Maris’s desire to paint deserts her over the next few months.
Decamping to Toronto to find solace among her family members, Maris stumbles across the archives of one E. Sutcliffe Moresby (a probable stand-in for W. Somerset Maugham), who describes a bygone Singapore, and a burgeoning and possibly doomed love affair he played a small part in furthering, in letters and in stories. Hozy is less adept at inhabiting the voice of a supposedly famous early 20th-century writer, but one has to applaud her ambition here, especially in tandem with Maris’s evolution from grief-stricken painter to a woman of stronger mettle, ready to face the truth about what really happened to Stone, what skeletons lurked in his past and whether she can reclaim her artistic self.
What elevates The Scarlet Macaw from most other mysteries is its fervent grasp of the power of stories, and how important they are in providing a sense of self. Maris, as the book progresses, will need that knowledge as deceptions build up around her. But so too does anyone who believes stories can save or redeem people, even after the worst has transpired.
Sarah Weinman’s Crimewave column runs monthly.
Artist Maris Cousins can’t quite believe it when Peter Stone, her antique-dealing mentor and friend, dies from a poisoned drink. She and Dinah, his half-sister, struggle to understand who would have it in for the well-liked man. Peter’s ex-wife and business partner, Angela, brusquely tells them to get on with it. The Singapore police are baffled and Maris falls into a depression. Gradually, she begins looking through the art and personal letters that Peter left her in his will. Concurrently, Interpol is pursuing a smuggling operation and those agents have set their sights on the antiques trade.
Readers understand the case more clearly thanks to cleverly inserted short stories that describe the culture of 1920s Singapore. VERDICT: Hozy’s (A Cold Season in Shanghai) luscious prose makes this literary stand-alone a memorable read. Her talent for juggling multiple narrators (alternating between the present and 1920s Singapore) and interspersing with clue-laden short stories is impressive. Leisurely paced, it has tremendous crossover potential for nonmystery readers who favor classic tales such as those of W. Somerset Maugham.
Booklist (New York)
Artist Maris Cousins loses her ability to paint, even to see colors as she had previously, after witnessing the death by poisoning of her friend and mentor, Peter Stone, owner of a prestigious Singapore gallery. Puzzled by Peter's bequest to her of an old trunk containing letters, paintings, and first editions of books by a popular early twentieth-century English author, she dips into the short stories, which detail the travails of Englishmen and -women who made their way to Singapore or Malaya decades earlier, only to contend with monsoon rains, unrelenting heat, and unbearable loss. As Maris herself rebounds, her creativity reignited at the sight of a scarlet macaw after she falls in love with a suspiciously secretive visiting businessman, she finds a clue to the underlying cause of Peter's murder. Fiction echoes reality continually throughout this novel, which seems less a mystery--with a wrap that's a bit abrupt--than a family saga, notable particularly for its vivid sense of place in modern Singapore.