Where the skin of the earth shudders into the foothills of the Shunhua mountains, in a clearing above the mist and fringed with frangipani, Mo Moore set up a factory which, to this day, makes happiness.
Actually, it makes sex aids. Her goods sell all around the globe, and her biggest buyer is a British high-street chain. The boxes say simply: Made in China. In fact, they come from the place where Mo made a family and that she still calls home, a place too small for any map – the tiny, teetering village of Pingdi.
China began where Mo’s father ended. It began with a letter addressed to the Night Duty Officer, Eden House Care Home, and said:
Dear Ms Moore…
There is a special thrill in receiving a proof of a new book from indie publisher Bluemoose – they’ve never let me down yet. Huge thanks to Kevin for sending me a copy of The Happiness Factory in exchange for an honest review.
Jo McMillan’s novel is a gem; it’s clear from the premise that we’re in for a quirky ride as we follow Mo from night duty in a care home to making sex aids in a Chinese factory. But what surprised and delighted me most about this novel is that it isn’t just offbeat humour and sex-related puns – there is real heart to this story, both sadness and joy, and characters that leap off the page.
Mo herself is a wonderful creation: she’s not quite like anyone I’ve met in literature before. She’s not naive, and she possesses a self-awareness and a sense of being truly (dreaded word) self-actualised, but she also lets herself be led by more forceful characters such as Dr Long, and she has a kind of laid-back, lets-see-what-happens-here attitude that really charmed me. I loved the idea that in the village of Pingdu she meets her found family, and Mrs Su, the mayor, and Lulu all became precious to me, too, as I read.
Although there is a fanciful element to Mo upping sticks and buying a factory in an unknown land, this isn’t a whimsical, idealistic book. There is also a lot of insight into the Chinese regime, and the way the government controls so many aspects of people’s lives. It’s not done in a heavy-handed way, but it left me feeling like I’d had a glimpse behind the curtain. The sense of actual peril lurking just out of sight behind the slightly absurd scenarios that Mo finds herself in is really cleverly done.
Overall, this is a book that delivers more than it promises, that manages to explore multiple themes with a delicate touch. The writing dances from lyrical description to comic episodes to trauma-related flashbacks, flitting between modes and finding richness in its variety. It’s a fabulous experience, and I highly recommend it to readers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.
The Happiness Factory by Jo McMillan is published by Bluemoose Books and is available to purchase here.