Pao by Kerry Young
Bloomsbury $36.99

"Life is hard" is one of the Noble Truths and Yang Pao, as a young boy landing on the streets of Jamaica in the 1930s, learns that lesson quickly. "Life is complicated" would be an even more apposite truth for Pao, and this grand story takes us through 50 or so years of his complicated life and drops us off at the end of the trip with a head full of stuff, which will untangle slowly long after the last line.

Kerry Young's father, a Chinese who "operated within Kingston's shadow economy", is a clear template for Pao. And with her mother being Chinese-African, she is uniquely placed to offer the viewpoint and commentary on Jamaica's turbulent history. This she does through Pao, in mesmerising fashion. Her skills are many - she is, foremost, a talented narrator, and the story alone of boy-becomes-gangster-with-a-conscience-in-exotic-locale would be enough to recommend the novel. But characterisation is a strength, also, and while Pao is multi-layered, enigmatic, confused and wise all in one, so the myriad folk who cross his path are fully fleshed out, complex yet credible. Maybe that's just Jamaica, where everyone, in a sense, is of mixed race; Pao himself certainly views all its inhabitants as immigrants and therefore all equal as citizens.

His philosophy is the heart of the book, and it shifts like the windblown sands as he negotiates a wife who loathes him, children who fail him and don't understand him, a relationship with a prostitute who is his rock, and the usual divided loyalties that dog his type as witnessed from everyone from Don Corleone to Tony Soprano.

Pregnant 12-year-olds, lascivious British Naval Officers, gun-runners, white doctors with soul-blackening addictions: "Mr Fixit" sees to them all with benevolence and increasing bemusement, as he wonders at how Jamaica is changing.

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Pao's exchanges with the less-than-squeaky future Archbishop and that relationship's twists and turns of love, hate, loyalty and respect, collect all Pao's fears and foibles and unfold as staggeringly and beautifully as the book does.

Young settles mostly for observation and head-scratching quizzicality rather than outright dogma and rhetoric, so her themes slip under your skin rather than slap you in the face. All this, and with an island charm to its colour and language, Pao is compelling, and unlike anything I've read in a long while.

Michael Larsen is an Auckland writer and reviewer.