I find novels without dialogue relatively difficult to get through. This is possibly some kind of psychological block, my word is defined so much by conversation (and my banal contributions to it) that acres of prose on the page daunt me. This was possibly what left me rather unmoved by the first half of Something like A House by Sid Smith. I wanted to read it because its premise intrigued me. Jim Fraser, a Scottish deserter from the Korean War ends up living as a partial slave in a Miao village in China for 35 years. It is also pretty short so I thought I could deal with the lack of dialogue.

The lack of dialogue comes from the fact that Fraser never really learns any Chinese. This is made unclear by later passages where there seems to be quite complex communication between Fraser and the villagers, but the lack of direct speech manages to emphasize this point. Nevertheless the book failed to grip me in its first hundred pages. I suffered from One Hundred Years Of Solitude Disease, namely getting confused about the relationships between all the characters with the same names. Coupled with an, I’m sure deliberate but to me annoying, lack of sense of the passage of time left me only a vaguely interested bystander.

It is only when the book stops being about a bystander to Chinese history and starts getting personal that it really takes flight. But then it becomes absorbing. First we have the murder of the villages only child, and then the desecration of her grave. Finally we get to the heart of the mystery of why Fraser has been allowed to live there in the first place, and a shock it is too. By the time Fraser leaves, you are more than aware that the book only has a few pages to run which surely will not be sufficient to cap off this tale.

Something Like A House is a book about China, but it is more importantly a book about race. I am generally not a fan of afterwords in books, often places for authors to valourize all the research they have wasted. Here however the later revelations in the book seem so monstrous that they demand a grain of truth. Smith delivers, and the fact that I am about to follow up some of this research with a sortie into the SOAS library justifies this method. A slow start, but a tremendous finish.