Authors: Timothy Mo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist

Identity: Chinese descent

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Monkey King, 1978

Sour Sweet, 1982

An Insular Possession, 1986

The Redundancy of Courage, 1991

Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, 1995

Renegade or Halo2, 1999


That Timothy Peter Mo is one of the most highly regarded of contemporary British novelists is supported by the prestigious honors bestowed upon his work, beginning with his first novel. Like its prototypical hero, Mo is a son of mixed parentage–his mother Barbara Helena Falkingham, his father Peter Mo Wan Lung. He was educated at the Convent of the Precious Blood School, Mill Hill, and St. John’s College, Oxford, which awarded him a B.A. in 1971, as well as its coveted Gibbs Prize. He won his next honor, the 1979 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, for his first novel, The Monkey King. This well-received work establishes both the subject and the essential style of all of his novels. Its focus is the cultural clash between East and West. Also marked by division is the author’s perspective, which falls between an ironic appraisal of human failing and a sympathy, even admiration, for the courage and resourcefulness of his main characters in coping with a world that is to them, in many respects, a foreign one.{$I[AN]9810000981}{$I[A]Mo, Timothy}{$I[geo]CHINA;Mo, Timothy}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Mo, Timothy}{$I[geo]ASIAN AMERICAN/ASIAN DESCENT;Mo, Timothy}{$I[tim]1950;Mo, Timothy}

Mo’s next novel, Sour Sweet, was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker and Whitbread Prizes, and it won the 1982 Hawthornden Prize. In it, a family of Hong Kong emigrants are newly arrived in London–not its most cosmopolitan part but a cultural backwater whose provincialism isolates them further. There is the clash between East and West again, but the emigrants establish only a tenuous link to the town’s Asian subculture, for the most part content to live largely as a world unto themselves. In an amusing twist of the old racial stereotype, all the whites look alike, especially to the family’s strongest member, the resilient Mrs. Chen.

Mo’s novels center on reconciliation, a theme unsuccessful only in his third novel, with tragic consequences that are more than figuratively monumental. In Sour Sweet, as in The Monkey King, this universal theme is well served, kept from cliché by the perspective of life seen as human comedy–Mo’s crowning achievement is a comic realism often likened to that of V. S. Naipaul. It is not merely the deft delineation of people and their language at which Mo excels; he also portrays their collision with a standard no human could possibly satisfy. All are subject to error, such as the ambulance men who come for the sister-in-law of Wallace’s wife after her botched suicide attempt. Her self-inflicted wounds, the reader is told, will heal quickly. More serious are the concussion and broken ribs sustained when these agents of mercy drop her on the staircase.

An Insular Possession was one of England’s most highly lauded novels of 1986. The main story line could not be simpler: Two oceans away from home, a pair of young Americans isolate themselves from the trading community that is their only immediate family by opposing the opium traffic that these uninvited Western entrepreneurs have for so long forced upon China. This apparently historical novel seems old-fashioned: adventure, violence, and intrigue on an epic scale against the panoramic backdrop of the so-called First Opium War (1839-1842), one consequence of which was the British annexation as its own “insular possession” of the island that has figured so prominently in Mo’s life and literature. Yet the novel’s pace, structure, and overall style are eccentric. The pace is considerably slowed by sometimes elaborate syntax, and just as frequently by sophisticated vocabulary on the order of “plenilunar,” which, typically, compromises a vividly Dickensian character description. Frequent stops to chat, often directly to the reader, about everything from ancient history to the current trading system, and the interpolation of entire articles for the English trading community’s printed voice The Canton Monitor and its upstart rival take An Insular Possession even further away from the usual character and context of fiction.

For some, however, these apparent deficiencies are only that. The newspaper extracts, the exchanges of sometimes lengthy letters, the essays on such esoterica as the fine art of heliogravure, rather than diminishing perhaps augment the novel’s true focus: not a hero but a place in time and the historic clash of cultures that occurred there. Arguably, the bitter irony that resulted is shown to best effect not by a characteristically Western fast pace and linear narration but in a more typically Oriental manner. Evidently the author’s intent is not the traditional one of drawing readers in but rather of alienating them, using sophisticated vocabulary and syntax, irony, and other distancing techniques to establish a twentieth century perspective on what was a tragic turning point in nineteenth century Chinese history for more than its obvious victims.

Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage features a debased, cowardly, homosexual Chinese protagonist, Adolph Ng, whose self-preservation demands most of his time. The novel, based on the bloody invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975, reports on the conflict in a nonpolitical style. Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard generated more attention for the controversy surrounding it than for its merits. Mo, offended by his publisher’s advance offer and suggested changes to the novel, established his own publishing company, Paddleless Press, to bring out the novel. Set in the fictional Filipino city of Gobernador de Leon, the work was criticized for its fragmentary nature and vulgar humor. Narrated by black Amerasian Rey Castro and also set in the Philippines, Renegade or Halo2 was better received, earning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Mo himself expressed a personal preference for the work and considered the first-person narration to be better sustained than in The Redundancy of Courage.

BibliographyFacknitz, Mark A. R. “Timothy Mo.” In Contemporary Novelists, edited by Lesley Henderson. 5th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Describes Mo’s efforts with skilled review of his first three books.Ho, Elaine Yee Lin. Timothy Mo. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. The first book-length work of criticism on Mo. Includes a short chronology, an opening chapter on theory, individual chapters on each novel, a survey of criticism, and a bibliography.McGivering, Jill. “Timothy Mo Buries Hong Kong.” World Press Review 38 (August, 1991): 56. Provides a compressed but vivid picture of The Redundancy of Courage.Ramraj, Victor J. “The Intertices and Overlaps of Cultures.” In International Literature in English, edited by Robert L. Ross. 5th ed. New York: Garland, 1991. An in-depth review of Mo’s writing skills.Rothfork, John. “Confucianism in Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24, no. 1 (1989): 49-64. The viability of Confucian values as expressed in Sour Sweet is questioned.Zhang, Aiping. “Timothy Mo.” In British Novelists Since 1960, Second Series, edited by Merritt Moseley. Vol. 194 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. A comprehensive biography that analyzes Mo’s works.
Categories: Authors