Tash Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, was an impressive affair set in 1940’s British Malaya that offered a beguiling case of unreliable, multiple narrative viewpoints. This one, his follow-up effort, is set mostly in the Indonesia of the 1960’s with quick detours to neighboring Malaysia in between.
It starts off promisingly enough. The story is around two orphaned brothers who were brought up in entirely different lifestyles. The elder, Johan, was taken in by a wealthy Malaysian couple and is wracked with guilt on what he perceives to be an unforgivable abandonment of his younger brother, Adam. It is from Adam’s perspective that most of the story unfolds. He is brought up by an Indonesian painter of Dutch origin, Karl, in a remote seaside village in Indonesia in a simple but mostly content existence. However, it is the age of Sukarno’s leadership and the threat of violent rebellion and communist uprising is never too far. There is also a lot of pending resentment against the erstwhile colonial masters, the Dutch, and anyone linked to the place. Karl is taken away by soldiers and Adam is left fending for himself and trying to figure out where his adoptive father has been taken to. In a parallel narrative track, we have Margaret, a now world weary woman who had moved to this side of the world when she was young and full of life’s possibilities. She works at the university, but is aware of the growing restlessness of the students studying under her. And what of her associate, Din? Is he the simple local guy he portrays himself to be or is there another darker story there?
Adam unearths an old link between Karl and Margaret and sets off in search of her as the only tenuous link he has in finding Karl. But the city and his fragmented memories of his brother hold many uncertain promises for him. Will Margaret be able to provide the help he so desperately needs? As the country heads towards civil war, these disparate characters try to find succor and a vague sense of belonging to anything they can cling on to but, in Adam’s case at least, this could be the very thing which leads them onto a path of no return.
The start of the book and the world building were wondrous in their enactment. The intricate descriptions of the squalor and smells of Jakarta envelop and effortlessly transports the reader to the world the story is set in. The characters are well defined and deep insights provided into their mental makeup, particularly Margaret and Adam. Johan’s portions, while brief, do provide an insight into the self-destructive path he has allowed himself to drift into. However, after a point, the story seems to get stuck in a curious stasis, almost as if the author couldn’t figure out how to take it to a satisfying destination after setting up the premise. Adam’s arc especially is not always relatable; the drastic shift into almost criminal perpetrator is supposed to be a product of his confused identity but doesn’t play out effectively enough on the page. And a couple of passages of physical intimacy appeared forced into the narrative, a familiar problem of a lot of literary authors who can’t seem to envision their main protagonists without some sex thrown in.
That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth a read though, just that it isn’t as good as his winsome debut. This is still a decent enough read, especially for the carefully constructed sense of place and time.