With the help of Jill from jillsbookcafe.blog I have collected together some of my favourite books about Malaysia. Having spent several holidays in the Malay Peninsular while I was living in Singapore I have always felt drawn to books set in this lovely country.
First books by local authors:
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw
The Harmony Silk Factory is a devastating love story set against the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Malaysia. Set in Malaya during the 1930s and 40s, with the rumbling of the Second World War in the background and the Japanese about to invade, The Harmony Silk Factory is the story of four people: Johnny, an infamous Chinaman – a salesman, a fraudster, possibly a murderer – whose shop house, The Harmony Silk Factory, he uses as a front for his illegal businesses; Snow Soong, the beautiful daughter of one of the Kinta Valley’s most prominent families, who dies giving birth to one of the novel’s narrators; Kunichika, a Japanese officer who loves Snow too; and an Englishman, Peter Wormwood, who went to Malaysia like many English but never came back, who also loved Snow to the end of his life. A journey the four of them take into the jungle has a devastating effect on all of them, and brilliantly exposes the cultural tensions of the era.
Haunting, highly original, The Harmony Silk Factory is suspenseful to the last page.
Next I have to include two beautiful books by Tan Twan Eng
The Gift of RainPenang, 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is. With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.
The Garden of Evening MistsIn the highlands of Malaya, a woman sets out to build a memorial to her sister, killed at the hands of the Japanese during the brutal Occupation of their country. Yun Ling’s quest leads her to The Garden of Evening Mists, and to Aritomo, a man of extraordinary skill and reputation, once the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. When she accepts his offer to become his apprentice, she begins a journey into her past, inextricably linked with the secrets of her troubled country’s history.
Many years ago I read several books by Nevil Shute. This was my favourite. You may have seen the film, but the book is even better.
A Town Like AliceJean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins.
When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many.
Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.
After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs…
The Separation by Dinah JefferiesThe Separation, Dinah Jefferies’ stunning debut novel, is the heartbreaking tale of a family fractured by lies and one mother’s love reaching across the distance of years and continents.
A country at war with itself,
a family divided and betrayed,
a bond that can never be broken…
Malaya, 1955. Lydia Cartwright returns from visiting a sick friend to an empty house. The servants are gone. The phone is dead. Where is her husband Alec? Her young daughters, Emma and Fleur?
Fearful and desperate, she contacts the British District Officer and learns that Alec has been posted up country. But why didn’t he wait? Why did he leave no message?
Lydia’s search takes her on a hazardous journey through war-torn jungle. Forced to turn to Jack Harding, a man she’d vowed to leave in her past, she sacrifices everything to be reunited with her family.
And while carrying her own secrets, Lydia will soon face a devastating betrayal which may be more than she can bear . . .
My review of The Separation
The Planter’s Wife by Ann Bennett1938: Juliet and her sister Rose arrive in Penang to stay with an aunt, after the death of their father. Juliet quickly falls under the spell of Gavin Crosby, a plantation owner, who despite his wealth, charm and good looks is shunned by the local community. Rushed into marriage, Juliet is unprepared for the devastating secrets she uncovers on Gavin’s plantation, and the bad blood between Gavin and his brother…
But in 1941 the Japanese occupy Malaya and Singapore sweeping away that world and changing Juliet’s life forever.
For decades after the war which robbed her of everyone she loved, Juliet lives as a recluse back on the plantation. But in 1962 the sudden appearance of Mary, a young woman from an orphanage in Indonesia, forces Juliet to embark on a journey into the past, and to face up to the heart-breaking truths she’s buried for so long.
My review of The Planter’s Wife
Han Suyin is always a writer of choice:
And The Rain My DrinkIt is 1948 and the British in Malaya are struggling to put down a Communist uprising and deal with rising nationalism in the colony. Chinese girl Suyin falls in love with a British police officer and is able to see both sides of the war but she sympathizes more with the Communist guerrillas and is critical of the British colonials. A much-loved classic and an important work in the canon of Singapore literature.
And now one I haven’t read but which is on my tbr pile
The Night Tiger by Yangsze ChooIn 1930s colonial Malaya, a dissolute British doctor receives a surprise gift of an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy. Sent as a bequest from an old friend, young Ren has a mission: to find his dead master’s severed finger and reunite it with his body. Ren has forty-nine days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth forever.
Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker, moonlights as a dancehall girl to pay her mother’s debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir that leads her on a crooked, dark trail.
As time runs out for Ren’s mission, a series of unexplained deaths occur amid rumours of tigers who turn into men. In their journey to keep a promise and discover the truth, Ren and Ji Lin’s paths will cross in ways they will never forget.
To read Jill’s personal list of books set in Singapore look here