Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory was not something I thought I would really enjoy, not because it wasn’t good (because it is!), but because it’s historical in nature and I’m really not a fan of historical fiction, and I’m especially tired of Malay historical fiction – I’m not sure why almost every single Malaysian writer out there writes historical fiction.
This novel is about Johnny Lim, a Communist leader in 1940s Malaya. His story was told from three different narrators – his son, his wife, and his friend. Each of the narrators had different ideas of who Johnny was. His son, Jasper, wrote of a determined, malicious young man who had a gift for machines and rose up from working at the mines of Kinta Valley to being the owner of the Silk Harmony Factory and a fearless leader of the Communist party. The man his wife, Snow, wrote of was more ordinary. He was a man who tries hard to appear worldly, and was enamored by the wife he was too afraid to touch. Snow also wrote of Kunichika Mamoru, a Japanese professor she was falling in love with. I enjoyed Snow’s part in the story the most, and at some points the prose actually reminded me somewhat of Murakami Ryu’s short stories. The third and last narrator was Peter Wormwood, an English actor who became a close friend of Johnny’s. Snow’s diary in the second part of the story already hinted at how close Peter and Johnny were, and Peter’s narratives proves that both of them really needed the other at the point in time they were friends. Peter was charmed by what he saw as Johnny’s innocence or naivete, while Johnny had attached himself to Peter in some hope that he too could become as polished and worldly as Peter (or the Peter in his mind, at least). Peter’s narrative repeats a lot of things already told by Jasper and Snow, but it wasn’t boring in the least. Instead, his perspective made me realise that there is no one answer to the question of who Johnny Lim was.
I enjoyed the somewhat fragmented way the story was told – each narrator were from different times in Johnny’s life, even if Peter & Snow’s story intersect – and how only when I was done did I see how everything was woven together. This book definitely deserves a second read. I also enjoyed Aw’s style; his prose was delicious to read and despite the “historical” label it read as easily as contemporary fiction. I’m still waiting for his second novel, The Map of the Invisible World, to be out in B-Format, and during his book tour he mentioned that his third novel would be a contemporary one, so I’m definitely looking forward to that!
~ originally posted on blogspot
edit: I’ve since heard that there’s a lot of factual errors in terms of geography, history, culture, etc. – all of which I didn’t catch as a Malaysian reader. Shows how much I know about my own country! But this did not change the fact that I found the writing enjoyable, and more readable than most Malaysian writing I’ve tried.