THE HARMONY SILK FACTORY : A NovelTash Aw
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The Fiction Is Set In Pre- And Post-World War II Malaysia & Explores Themes Of Love, Betrayal And The Impact of Historical Events On Personal Lives
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★★ The Harmony Silk Factory won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award and also made it to the 2005 Man Booker longlist ★★
The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) is Tash Aw’s critically acclaimed first novel, set in 1940s British-ruled Malaya, which is now called Malaysia. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Whitbread Book Awards for First Novel Award. The novel incorporates some historical events, and its characters may temporarily take the roles of real people, for example Johnny Lim acts as Lai Teck in the Batu Caves massacre, though there is otherwise little similarity between them.
A landmark work of fiction from one of Britain’s most exciting new writers: The Harmony Silk Factory is a devastating love story set against the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Malaysia. Tash Aw recounts the life of a successful Chinese textile merchant in Malaya during the British colonial years, leading up to the Japanese occupation. But nothing is as straightforward as it first seems.
Set in Malaysia in 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 story is narrated by four different characters, each offering their perspective on the life of Johnny Lim, the central figure of the novel. Johnny is a Chinese businessman who owns the Harmony Silk Factory, a successful textile factory in rural Malaysia. The first section of the book is narrated by Johnny’s son, Jasper, who presents his father as a mysterious and enigmatic figure.
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.
The second part of the novel is narrated by Snow, Johnny’s wife. Her narration provides insight into their unconventional marriage and the secrets that lie beneath the surface. The final section of the book is narrated by Peter Wormwood, an Englishman who becomes involved with Johnny and Snow during the war.
Through the multiple narrators, the novel explores the complex relationships between the characters and the shifting power dynamics during a time of political and social upheaval. The story delves into themes of colonialism, identity, and the personal sacrifices made in the pursuit of power and success.
“The Harmony Silk Factory” received critical acclaim upon its release and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It showcases Tash Aw’s skill in weaving together different narratives and capturing the historical context of Malaysia during the mid-20th century. The novel provides a rich and immersive reading experience, delving into the complexities of human relationships and the impact of historical events on individual lives.
Haunting, highly original, The Harmony Silk Factory is suspenseful to the last page.
KIRKUS REVIEW :
A sultry first novel of betrayal, with an exotic setting (Malaya) and a WWII link. Could it be another English Patient? As a literary creation, no way; as raw material for a movie, maybe.
Who is Johnny Lim? Aw gives us three versions of the Chinese businessman, from three different narrators. To his son Jasper, he’s a monster, and not just because he’s a drug kingpin, the richest man in Malaya’s Kinta Valley. Item: Johnny murdered his first patron, Tiger Tan, to get his textile business. Item: Johnny replaced his father-in-law as the valley’s chief power-broker by injuring him in a fire he set himself. Item: In 1942, Johnny, a secret Communist commander, betrayed his fellow commanders, who were then massacred by the occupying Japanese.
Curiously, we learn little about Johnny’s competence as a father, but we do know that Jasper’s mother, Snow, died giving birth to him. This young woman, a great beauty, is the second narrator. In 1941, she’s steeling herself to leave Johnny after only a year’s marriage; she finds him alien and unknowable, the qualities that originally attracted her. But Snow’s Johnny is no monster.
The child of laborers, he’s in awe of the highborn Snow and barely touches her. The heart of her story is an ill-fated expedition the two make to the mysterious islands Seven Maidens. They’re accompanied by two Englishmen (one is Peter, an epicene aesthete and Johnny’s only friend) and a Japanese man, Mamoru, who will achieve his own notoriety as the Valley’s eventual administrator.
Snow’s account is as evasive as Jasper’s was explicit. The third narrator is Peter. For him, Johnny is an innocent child, worried that he’ll lose Snow to Peter’s superior charms. Peter himself is far from innocent, a bitter, poisonous man who will indeed betray Johnny, though the friendship has been implausible from the get-go.
Atmospherics substitute for credible characterization in this Malaysian writer’s sluggish, awkward account of a man’s many selves.
About the Author:
Tash Aw is a recent graduate of UEA. He is Malaysian by birth but now lives in London. This is his first novel.
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