We see Johnny Lim from three different perspectives, beginning with his son, Jasper, who pieces together what he can after his death; he deduces he is a ruthlessly evil man who stopped at nothing to become wealthy and powerful. This is the era of tin-mining and rubber plantations—parts actually dovetail nicely with Amitav Gosh's The Glass Palace—and the Malayan countryside of the Kinta Valley, where tin-mining was particularly successful, is brought to life evocatively.
Then we read the diaries of Snow Soong, Johnny Lim's wife, who died in childbirth. The diaries are particularly focused on Snow’s delayed honeymoon with Johnny, which occurs as Japanese troops are marching across Siam and war seems imminent. The dynamics of the trip are complicated by two Englishmen tagging along, Peter and Honey, and a Japanese “academic”. The trip to the Seven Maidens off Pangkor Island takes on an almost magical realist flavour at times, without actually becoming so; it all seems a little too unbelievable and fantastic in parts.
Finally, we hear from Peter Wormwood, aged now and in a residential care home in modern Malaysia, who recounts the story of his life and casts new light over the previous two accounts about Johnny. Which one is "right"? We just don't know.
This was Tash Aw’s first novel, and it was highly acclaimed: it won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award and made it to the Man Booker 2005 longlist.
The backdrop of Ipoh, Malaya is really the star of The Harmony Silk Factory. Whether describing the appalling conditions coolies worked under, complex British colonial and Chinese social niceties, or the Malayan jungle, Tash Aw’s description of place flutter the pages to life. It’s fitting, perhaps, that place is so important, as the idea that death ends everything about a human life is an explicitly recurring theme. “Death erases everything, you know,” Snow writes. “That’s right: death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed. It’s the same if someone goes away. After a while, they simply cease to exist in your memory.” And even while in your memory, they will be existing very differently in somebody else’s, as the novel demonstrates.
We were not such fans of the unreliable narrators—because they couldn’t all be right—and felt like the author was testing our recall of the earlier stories as we read different accounts of the same life; it’s a kind of literary palimpsest that we find a bit contrived. And though we think we prefer Indonesian-set Map of the Invisible World, we did love a lot of the beautiful Southeast Asian details in this novel and we think travellers to Malaysia would too.
Consider for instance the frangipani tree, and whether it is appropriate to plant one in a Malaysian garden. Peter is met with resistance as he plans to include them at the care home's new garden:
“‘It’s the tree of death,’ [Alvaro] said. ‘Muslims plant it in their cemeteries.’
‘Superstitious claptrap,’ I said. ‘The country is riddled with it… The Siamese at least have a decent excuse for not wanting it in their back gardens. Their word for chempaka is virtually the same as that for “sadness”. But that doesn’t stop them from planting it in a monastery and temple gardens…’”
“I never thought of the square as being particularly red when I first saw it more than fifty years ago. The colour of the Stadhuys was, I think, truer to its original then — a weather-worn terracotta, red only in the sense that an Etruscan urn is red. Now, meticulously repainted by the town council, it looks too shiny and too orange… Christ Church is, of course, properly red, built as it is of laterite.”
Such snippets are sprinkled throughout the book—look for the mention of the Armenian owner of Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Whether you find the unresolved story satisfying in its own way or not, the ride along the way is certainly an illuminating trip to take and the book would make a fine companion to a trip to Malaysia, particularly for history lovers.
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