The eccentric Mr Hare – as he was known to Sophia, the first wife of Singapore founder Thomas Stamford Raffles – and his Asian harem are brought vividly to life in this work of historical fiction set in Southeast Asia.
Arthur Grimsby is an ageing expat in 1960s Singapore. Museum curator, ornithologist, freshly bereaved, he fears Singapore’s looming independence and his redundancy and tries to complete one final piece of work: the life story of an eccentric 19th-century Englishman called Alexander Hare.
Hare was a trader and slave-owner in the East and a friend of Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Java and the founder of Singapore, but Hare’s chief claim to fame is as the creator of an Asian harem, including in his collection women from Java, Bali, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, China, India and Africa. Hare’s love of women and his assembling of a harem, initially in Borneo and then on an uninhabited atoll that would become the Cocos-Keeling Islands, made him an object of guilty male fantasies and of strident female resentments, the epitome of masculine, colonial exploitation.
But Arthur Grimsby’s paths are no straighter than Alexander Hare’s and the two grow together as their destinies intertwine.
‘Writing today about such a historical figure as Alexander Hare – and indeed about a fictional European male in late-colonial Asia such as Arthur Grimsby – can be a fraught undertaking. Barley is clearly aware of this, and diffuses much of the potential tension with a certain satirical playfulness. Hare is eventually undone by the agency of Anna and Maria, recent South African additions to his harem, while Arthur is bested by just about everyone. And the book’s unexpected finale is a sharp lesson never to make unthinking assumptions about apparently passive background figures … The Man Who Collected Women is a clever and highly entertaining novel, which conjures up a wholly fictional protagonist with just the right balance of sympathy and ridicule, and which handles a problematic real-life historical figure deftly.’ Tim Hannigan, Asian Review of Books
About the author
Nigel Barley was born south of London in 1947. After taking a degree in modern languages at Cambridge, he gained a doctorate in anthropology at Oxford. Barley originally trained as an anthropologist and worked in West Africa, spending time with the Dowayo people of North Cameroon. He survived to move to the Ethnography Department of the British Museum and it was in this connection that he first travelled to Southeast Asia. After forays into Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Burma, Barley settled on Indonesia as his principal research interest and has worked on both the history and contemporary culture of that area. After escaping from the museum, he is now a writer and broadcaster and divides his time between London and Indonesia.