Whether you studied it in school, saw it on the stage or watched it on the screen, chances are you’re pretty familiar with the story of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. But Chloe Gong shakes up the Shakespeare classic with her debut novel, These Violent Delights.
Set in Shanghai in the 1920s, the book follows Juliette Cai, an eighteen-year-old former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, a network of criminals far above the law. Their rivals are the White Flowers, who have fought them for generations — and their heir, Roma Montagov, who was Juliette’s first love and her first betrayal. But when the members of both gangs start to show signs of madness, ending with them clawing out their own throats, people in the city start to whisper about a contagion; about a monster living in the shadows. And Roma and Juliette are forced to set their guns — and grudges — aside, working together to put an end to the madness.
There are echoes of the story that fans of Romeo and Juliet will no doubt be familiar with — the themes of love, hate, loyalty and yes, that balcony scene. But it isn’t long before These Violent Delights forges its own way away from the source material, not least because the forbidden romance between the central characters happened years before the novel even began (and, well, because of the monster causing the madness sweeping throughout the city).
When the reader first meets Roma and Juliette, the relationship between the exes is tense, to say the least. They haven’t seen each other for years — not since Roma betrayed her, and Juliette was sent back to the United States. But now that she’s back, she’s determined to prove their past is behind her — and that she’s ready to take her place as the heir of the Scarlets. However, it’s not just the relationship between Roma and Juliette that has changed over the years. There have been a lot of changes within the city itself, as These Violent Delights is a haunting exploration of colonialism. There are a number of foreign occupiers — the French, the British, the Americans and the Communists — who have gained more power in the intervening years. There’s also a new power dynamic bubbling under the surface of the Scarlet Gang. Since she has been Stateside, Juliette’s cousin Tyler has been trying to cement himself as the future of the Scarlets. However, now that she’s back, she’s trying to prove that being the heir of the Scarlets is her rightful place.
The themes of loyalty and love are carefully woven through the threads of the story, each taking on new meanings as the book goes on. Because These Violent Delights is not just about the love between Roma and Juliette — which, despite their protests, it’s still there bubbling under the surface — but love for your friends, your family, your gang and your city. And most of all, the things that you do to protect those that you love — even when they don’t quite realise what you’re doing at the time. That also ties in with the theme of loyalty running through the book, particularly about how your sense of loyalty can be challenged — when you love someone that you shouldn’t; when you’re faced with a choice between your duty and your loved ones; or when you’re faced with the choice of doing what’s right versus what is easy.
While the star-crossed lovers-turned-enemies-turned-lovers are at the heart of the story, it feels like These Violent Delights belongs to the secondary characters almost as much as them. The White Flowers’ Marshall and Benedikt, Roma’s right-hand men, bring a degree of light heartedness to the story, which ends up being particularly beneficial as it races towards the end. And Roma’s younger sister, Alisa, is another bright spot in the novel. Meanwhile, Rosalind and Kathleen Lang are Juliette’s cousins and closest confidants — the latter of whom proves to be particularly beneficial in the fight against the monster lurking in the depths of the Huangpu River, with her quick-thinking helping her get the information needed to keep it at bay.
Oh, and with good news after that reveal at the ending, there is a sequel on the way — so there are many more adventures to come.
Review copy provided.
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