HALF A Lifelong Romance, the latest of Eileen Chang's works in Penguin's Modern Classics range, originally appeared in serial form in the 1950s in Chang's native China, shortly after Mao proclaimed the People's Republic.

Years later, having swapped her motherland for America, Chang restyled her novel, expunging the previous Party-line pandering and redrawing the narrative timeline so as to switch the focus from the upheavals endured by her nation to those that shape individual lives.

Now, thanks to Karen S. Kingsbury's expert translation, we get Chang's most popular work for the first time in English.

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The novel opens with and centres upon two young characters in 1930s Shanghai. Shijun, an engineer, falls for his colleague, pretty factory worker Manzhen. A relationship develops, first awkwardly then confidently, until parental disapproval sunders it. Both lovers go their separate ways, which enables Chang to flesh out her cast and broaden her scope. Flitting between Shanghai and Nanking, a tangled skein of family ties emerges. The most interesting strand concerns that of Manzhen's older sister, Manlu, who works as a taxi-dancer and prostitute for rich clients, and whose eventual marriage to a successful businessman leads not to a way out but a tragic end.

Manlu's is not the only marriage that founders. Shijun knows as early as his wedding night that his marriage to the childish Tsuizhi was a mistake. Manzhen only marries the repellent Hongtsai for the sake of her young son. Then, after 14 years apart, a tumultuous hiatus filled with births and deaths, marriages and divorces, the former lovers are reunited. But can what they once had be rekindled?

Placed alongside Penguin's other two Chang titles, Half A Lifelong Romance has more in keeping with the character-led tales of passion, yearning and family strife contained in Love In A Fallen City than it does with the headier, more plot-driven novellas within Lust, Caution. That eponymous novella is set during the Japanese occupation of China and flirts with seduction, deception and assassination. The Battle of Shanghai is mentioned briefly towards the end of Half A Lifelong Romance but only as a reference point. Having apprised us of where we are in history, Chang renders all external action into muffled background noise so as to amplify the shriller, more urgent dynamics of her own creations.

And it is her cast that ultimately carries the novel, particularly her female characters. Though polar opposites, Manzhen and Manlu are strong forces who juggle jobs and fight their corners to make ends meet and maintain their independence.

THE matriarchs we encounter are either charitable do-gooders or meddling busybodies whose sole purpose is to turn daughters into well-placed wives. Such matchmakers and social-climbers feel like variations of Jane Austen ladies, only with less sparkle and more grit.

Equally vivid is Chang's evocative recreation of the era. Along with the standard components - rickshaws, concubines, rice paddies - we are introduced to less well-known rituals, superstitions and cultural mores, and are given unique insight into the often gaping differences between rich and poor, master and servant, husband and wife. What is less consistent here is the quality of Chang's prose. She consciously strives for naturalistic rather than inventive descriptions, even though the sporadic latter (wet cobbles are "goose-egg stones shining like shoals of fish") far outstrip the more routine former ("a leaf the size of a bird"). More erratic is the range of integrated wisdom. Lines such as "Fate is cruel, but it's a cruelty that suffuses sweetness into the suffering" read like quirky bon mots; however, "Granny snored, as older people often do" is astuteness we could do without.

But when she strikes the right balance, Chang impresses by blending hard knocks and home truths with writing as sleekly elegant as her heroines' cheongsams. She keeps us absorbed in their affairs and rooting for Shijun and Manzhen, most notably in the will-they-won't-they closing pages.

"There are all kinds of love in this world but never the same love twice," ran Scott Fitzgerald's famous dictum. Shijun reveals his own spin on it: "Maybe a love like that came to a person only once in a lifetime? Once was enough, maybe." Chang's bittersweet novel is a study in uncertainty, and one which surprises and moves us in equal measure.