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Ah Hock is telling his life story to a writer. He is an ethnic Chinese Malay, has spent most of his life tantalisingly close to the economic miracle of Kuala Lumpur, and has been released from prison for killing a Bangladeshi migrant. This is a story of life on the edge, mostly in a world of petty crime, illegal migrant workers and aspirations of a middle class life. But Ah Hock knows that while he was never great at school, his strength is in people management - emotional intelligence, if you will. Through various phases of his life, failing to get on with his ailing mother, farmed out to various relatives, running the streets with his soulmate Keong. The lack of stability drives Ah Hock (with very little protestation) into illegality, and this leaves Ah Hock trapped in an underworld through debts, obligations and honour. Yet, Ah Hock does have some contact with the aspirations of a developing Malaysia. His wife is a make-up saleswoman working on a pyramid selling scheme, dreaming of cars and houses. The novel is told in an engaging way and for the first half, it feels lively and quirky - offering non-linear vignettes of life in a nation that is changing, switching back and forth between the past and the present day conversation with the writer. It feels as though the writer represents the new society and Ah Hock the old - with each trying to reconcile themselves with the other. But by about half way, the novel feels like it is lacking direction. It is all building up to the reveal about the killing - with little details being drip fed - but the non-linear narration coupled with the chaotic changes in Ah Hock's life does make the reader feel that this is more a collection of short works than a single life story. Four stars for a novel that starts well and drifts - but with a stronger narrative life it could have been five. ****0
The Garden Of Evening Mists tells the story of Yun Ling Teoj, a recently retired Malaysian High Court Judge, as she sets her affairs in order in her former home in the Cameron Highlands of Central Malaysia. As she faces up to her recent diagnosis of aphasia and dementia, she entertains a Japanese scholar who wants to study the drawings of Aritomo, the former imperial gardener under whom Ling was apprenticed. What unfolds is a dense story of intrigue and power games. We see different powers struggle for control in Malaysia - the British, the Japanese, the Chinese - and the compromises that have to be made in order to survive. We see a struggle to create a national cultural identity in a newly independent Malaysia that is a patchwork of peoples. The national struggle is set into relief by the individual situations - Ling, who hates the Japanese because of the way she and her family had been treated in the POW camp, yet having an affair with Aritomo; Magnus, the South African tea magnate who has come through the war unscathed; Aritomo himself, who had left Japan before the war and sat it out in Malaysia. The writing was great; detailed, descriptive, evocative. Whilst timelines jumped about, the story was coherent and the feeding of information was well timed. The characters felt real, complex. If there is a complaint then it is that the plot becomes just a little bit too intricate at the end. The ending does require some reappraising of the characters and their motives, which is fine, but the basic plot device that emerges is rather contrived. It spoils what would otherwise have been a nicely pitched, well told if unspectacular novel. ****0
The Gift of Rain is a difficult book. I come from a very Western background, and perhaps is what makes the novel so difficult. In The Gift of Rain, we see a story of Philip Hutton, a child (becoming a young man) of mixed Chinese-English heritage growing up in a wealthy business family in Penang, Malaysia in the 1930s and 1940s. He is taken under the tutelage of Endo-san, a Japanese tenant of Philip's father. Books from different cultures are invaluable for learning about our fellow man. But the culture of the far east has always been mysterious to me. That is, the culture of honour, promises, bravery, culture, ritual suicide and utter ruthlessness. The Gift of Rain considers these themes in great detail - particularly divided loyalty - and shows the consequence in conflicts of loyalty, but it did not make clear to me how the culture and the brutality could co-exist. Perhaps this is my mistake in looking for logical explanations that fit with my own culture, but I was left as mystified as when I started. The novel itself falls into two halves - the first ion which Philip learns martial arts and culture from Endo-san, and the second half when Malaysia falls under Japanese occupation. The first half does drag somewhat, although an ardent fan of aikijutsu might disagree. But it (some of it, at least) is needed to set the scene for the second, rather more dramatic half. Here the pace picks up and the story twists and turns. The level of detailing gives a wonderful flavour of Penang at the time, although the jungle scenes lack some of the detailing that might have made it, too, come alive. The characterization is good too, particularly in terms of the Japanese and Chinese characters. Philip's immediate family - father, sister and brother are not painted with quite so much depth and can appear somewhat functional. But the characters of Yeap, Kon, Endo, Goro and Hirosho are wonderful, even if we never quite understand what makes them tick. The novel also asks profound questions of colonialism. What is it that makes British occupation of Malaysia acceptable but renders Japanese occupation so unacceptable? What loyalty should a coloniser offer to the colonised? What loyalty should the colonised offer to the coloniser? There are no easy answers, and as Philip tries to discover his own national identity and loyalty on the small scale, Malaysia as a whole faces the same problems. This is a profound and meaningful book, drawn on a big scale and with real moments of beauty. But at times, it does feel a little overlong, and falls just slightly short of answering that big question - what exactly made the Japanese psyche exactly what it was. *****