Having been abandoned in infancy by his American mother, John Gerrard has grown up in China. Raised by missionaries in Canton and Hong Kong, he speaks Cantonese, knows the customs and has never set foot outside the country. Even his wife is half Chinese. Yet, to the animist, ancestor-worshipping fisherfolk of the village where he sets up his first mission, he is a long-nose, a round-eye, a white giant, a barbarian. His plan to convert them to Christianity is doomed from the start.
This is the premise of Sid Smith's second novel, a companion volume to Something Like a House, which won the 2001 Whitbread First Novel award. That book is set in the same region of south-east China during the Korean war, and focuses on a British deserter who hides out in a community of peasants struggling under the Mao regime. The follow-up is set in the early 1900s, a similarly violent time, but one characterised by the lawlessness of dynastic senescence rather than state-sponsored brutality. For young gospel-spreaders, the tribal river valleys of the Cantonese hinterland - awash with robbers, cut-throats, opium traders, corrupt officials and virulent disease - are, indeed, a test of faith.
John goes native pretty quickly. Hardly has he set up home in a fishing village reduced by epidemic to a handful of people, than he is helping the villagers bring in their daily catch and paying homage to the river god. His immersion in the community comes to a crisis, however, when he disappears downstream on the headman's boat, accompanied by the headman's wife. His own wife, Grace, meanwhile, combines futile proselytising with an obsessive interest in the parallels between Chinese script and Christianity. The ideogram for "first" is comprised of the characters "dust", "live" and "man", which she interprets as God's creation of Adam. "Ship" comprises "boat", "8" and "person"; an allusion, she says, to Noah's Ark, with its eight human passengers. And "happiness" is made up of "god", "cultivated land", "first" and "person". She writes in her diary: "The makers of the Chinese alphabet agreed with the authors of Genesis - that the epitome of happiness was the first person (Adam) with God in the Garden of Eden."
Grace evolves the theory that the Chinese were the first recipients of the word of God following its spread eastwards after the Flood, and that they have betrayed Him in favour of idolatry. With John gone, she heads up river into the hills to preach her message under the dubious protective escort of Chang, a tax collector's secretary, and Jivu Lanu, a nomadic shaman.
Up to this point, the novel has been an atmospheric reflection on place and period, a delving into the origins of religious belief, and a development of the main and secondary characters. But with John and Grace both heading off on their separate journeys, the writing shifts into ripping-adventure mode. Even-paced simplicity gives way to breathtaking drama: chases and guns, murderous exploits and heroic deeds. It is as if Graham Greene stood up, mid-novel, and walked away from the typewriter and James Clavell sat down in his place. Both halves are well done, on their own terms, but it is hard to recover from the abrupt change of style and tone.
By returning to the same location and a similar set-up to his first novel (put oddball white man in hostile alien culture and see what happens), Smith is digging over ground he tilled better before. And in the sudden shift of direction, A House by the River seems unsure of what kind of novel it wants to be. Coming from a fine debutant, this is a disappointment.