Friday, February 16, 2007

Harmony Silk Factory?

Where's the Harmony? Where's the Silk? Where's the Factory? Good questions to ask about Tash Aw's first novel. Much talked about last year, I thought the book would be about some factory in China, its trials and tribulations, and maybe a development over time.


It's set in Malaya, and while an establishment called the Harmony Silk Factory - with a distinctly shady character - pops up in the book, the events of the story seem largely to precede this establishment, owned by the main character of the book - a rather shady wheeler-dealer, to say the least. The events described in the book mostly take place before, during and after the second world war, culminating in fairly gruesome events during the Japanese occupation (thankfully many of these are only hinted at). The book is told in three chunks, the first from the main character's son's viewpoint, the second from his wife's viewpoint, and the third from his one-time best friend's viewpoint. Combining them all, especially where two or three parties describe the same events, adds additional richness and explanations to the reader's understanding of the book.

The book describes well the different layers of society in Malaya at the time, the Chinese, the British whose life is deteriorating as time goes on, but who are blythely unconcerned about the Japanese invasion.

The book is very well written, and really quite gripping though it is only halfway through the book that you begin to find the question that is stopping you from putting it down. Not entirely sure that I would describe it as a landmark work of fiction, as the publisher suggests....

In an interesting little aside, one of the characters remembers a holiday as a student in France, walking from Compiegne to Pierrefonds, in an area north of Paris. We also holidayed there, 19 years ago, and we might have done the same walk. I remember well climbing into my mother's mini to drive off to somewhere, only to find that the steering wheel had disappeared. It was a German mini with the steering wheel on the wrong side!

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