T A Morton
Halfway Up A Hill
Collection of Short Stories
Pp 135 | Paperback | Rs 221
A Microcosm of Cosmopolitan Life in Hong Kong
T A Morton’s debut book Halfway Up A Hill is a collection of short stories set in modern-day Hong Kong. The tales revolve around characters who frequent a certain coffee shop in Soho that is located halfway up a hill. As the objective third-person narrative navigates the lives of foreign expatriates as well as natives, we feel the pulse of cosmopolitan life with creditable accuracy.
There is a wide variety of characters which adds to the interest and bears a verisimilitude to life. For example, Lucy is a cranky and whimsical older woman with an uncanny obsession for cleanliness. She frequently scrubs the walls of her apartment even though she is unkempt and bedraggled herself. Angie is an attention-seeker who loves to fabricate ordinary details to make them wild and shocking so as to inject excitement in life. She is also a notorious flirt who can go to any length to be in the company of good-looking men. This is in contrast to her simple and unassuming friend, Emma for whom kind eyes and good manners in men hold more value than appearance. Again, Patrick, the manager of the coffee shop, considers his position to be of great importance but fails miserably in commanding the respect of the two waitresses who ridicule and undermine his authority.
A unique technique is used to unravel the stories. The characters in each story, except for the first one, are introduced to us in the previous or immediately preceding story. This serves to pique the reader's interest and then satiate it when the particular character’s narrative is fully explored in the subsequent story. The pattern is a well-thought out one by the author and quite appealing.
Most of the stories are long and detailed but they keep the reader actively engaged. At times, however, certain passages do get monotonous but this does not hamper the overall reading of the book. Certain tales have succinct, thought-provoking epigraphs that are hauntingly beautiful.
The story “Halfway Up A Hill” is worth mentioning as it describes the coffee shop when everyone has left for the day. In the eerie silence, the inanimate objects appear to have a life of their own. The sense of everything settled and waiting permeates the scene. As the author notes: “The room is quiet of its usual dripping, falling sugar crystals and the whirring of pale thin stirrers. The cheap chairs no longer creak as they feel the weights of various bodies, the table no longer a poor substitute for a desk, encumbered with small laptops. The room like the air holds its breath, waiting for life to arrive and fill it with meaning.” Descriptions such as these are wistful and move the reader in a subtle manner.
The coffee shop is not only a venue for meeting and socialising for many, but also a sanctuary from the daily hassles of life. Not as prim and proper as the other upscale cafes and with food at a cheaper price, it draws regular customers – ordinary people from various walks of life who laugh and grumble over little things. In the final story “Masquerade”, many of the characters come together and there is a hint at imminent changes that will occur in their lives. The pleasant ambience is depicted well: “Strangers came and went that late afternoon and then there was a quiet calm; they remained oblivious to it all. Seating themselves on the worn red couch, the thin coffee table littered with their beverages. Andrew decided against going to the gym, finding normal non-taxing conversation to be a better way to relax. Grace bought some cookies that they all shared, a childish treat to encourage friendship. Emma sent an SMS to Angie saying that she was stuck at work and would be late. Debussy played in the background, soft, luxurious notes that bounced off the walls, almost filling the shop with a strong breeze.” It is a good way to round off the book that leaves a pleasant aftertaste.
The conversation between Patrick and the Western expatriates towards the end regarding the location of the coffee shop (halfway up or down the hill, depending on the point of view) sparks off the debate on whether the glass is half-empty or half-full – a pertinent topic that is always relevant to our existence.
However, the book is not without a few drawbacks. The natives in the stories (such as Patrick, the manager of the coffee shop and the waitresses, Jasmine and Coco) have English and not Chinese names, which is a trifle baffling. Perhaps this is indicative of the author wanting to cater to a particularly Western readership. One also wonders as to why the story about Rob, the obese Australian man, is titled “Rob Listens” when there are only casual interactions between him and another woman; him and the police; and him and the waitresses. None of the people confess any secret or share any strictly private and confidential matter with him. Hence, the word “listens” fails to prove its significance.
But on the whole, Halfway Up A Hill is a good read that gives a powerful insight into modern-day life in Hong Kong. It is a slim volume that can easily be completed while travelling or during one's leisure.