I came to this book with memories of travelling through Malaya during the 1960s when it was very different to the modern Kuala Lumpur of today. The miles and miles of rubber plantations, occasionally interrupted by small kampongs, were very atmospheric and so I was ready to be disappointed by a modern writer’s attempt to recreate the country in the 1940s. But this was not what happened.
This is the story of Johnny Lim, a successful business man with a dubious background. It is told from different viewpoints but it is the “voice” whom we learn about rather than the enigmatic subject, Johnny. The first storyteller, Johnny’s son Jasper, purports to give us an accurate account of his father’s life. In fact it proves to be the biased narration of a resentful son, which though giving us the bare bones of Johnny’s history tells us nothing about his character.
Next we move to the “beautiful” Snow Soong. Names are significant in this novel. Snow is cool, unapproachable and self-centred. This section of the book is so much her story that we learn very little about the feelings and emotions of the other characters. She describes incidents on Seven Maiden Islands which are pivotal to all their lives (and death) but are deliberately veiled in mystery.
Finally the flamboyant, sexually ambivalent Peter Wormwood gives us a clearer picture of Johnny’s true nature and what happened on that strange ill-fated “honeymoon” trip. He saw depths in Johnny, which others missed and perhaps suggests that Johnny was a victim of his environment and experiences. But really the book isn’t specifically about Johnny. It is about relationships made all the more interesting by the juxtaposition of characters from very different cultural backgrounds; Peter, the aesthete, Johnny, the poor victim of colonial rule, Snow the aristocratic cultured woman and Mamoru Kunichika, an intellectual, ruthless man.
The date chosen for the denouement, 1941, just prior to the fall of Malaya under Japanese rule is perfect, intensifying the atmosphere of impending doom and the end, for some, of their time of parties and pleasure. Nothing will ever be the same again for any of the people there.
Tash Aw gives us deliberate red herrings such as Jasper’s remark that he looks like a Japanese prince. He makes Jasper’s account read like careful research and we see Snow, at first, as a tragic, mistreated woman. Snow describes Mamoru as a cultured gentleman so that it seems impossible to imagine that he was also “the Demon of Kampar”. Johnny’s remark that, “Death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and for ever,” is obviously completely untrue.
I loved the little details of life in Malaya, such as the Chinese funeral where paper offerings of a Mercedes and a Boeing 747 were burnt and the way Batik material was considered inferior to silk.
Despite having very little empathy with any of the characters I found the gradual revelation of their story fascinating not least because so much was left unanswered.