WE, THE SURVIVORS : A NovelTash Aw
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Prejudice And the Refugee Experience Are Examined In This Taut Fiction Set In Malaysia
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From the author of The Harmony Silk Factory and Five Star Billionaire, a compelling depiction of a man’s act of violence, set against the backdrop of Asia in flux. A murderer’s confession – devastating, unblinking, poignant, unforgettable – which reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.
Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.
Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village and now trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, like many he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.
In the tradition of Camus and Houellebecq, Ah Hock’s vivid and compelling description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It is the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.
This question leads a young, privileged journalist to Ah Hock’s door. While the victim has been mourned and the killer has served time for the crime, Ah Hock’s motive remains unclear, even to himself. His vivid confession unfurls over extensive interviews with the journalist, herself a local whose life has taken a very different course. The process forces both the speaker and his listener to reckon with systems of power, race, and class in a place where success is promised to all yet delivered only to its lucky heirs.
An uncompromising portrait of an outsider navigating a society in transition, Tash Aw’s anti-nostalgic tale, We, the Survivors, holds its tension to the very end. In the wake of loss and destruction, hope is among the survivors.
The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living.
Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill.
A young Ah Hock reflects:
“… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.”
Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation in life improves into adulthood. Even without an education, he rises to the position of manager of a fish farm. Through interactions with wealthier clients of city restaurants and resort hotels, Ah Hock’s dating circle expands and he soon finds himself a wife, a mortgage, and endless evenings of Korean soap operas subtitled into Mandarin—all the pleasant trappings of the up-and-coming Malaysian middle class minus the baby-on-the-way.
But with one phone call from a rowdy childhood friend, who brokers in the gray market of migrant labor supply, Ah Hock trips backward into the penury of his youth. A spat of cholera runs through the Indonesian migrant community that supports his farm and Ah Hock must decide how far he is willing to sidestep his conscience. He could use his friend’s supply of undocumented workers as replacements for a tenth of the wages.
Ah Hock uniquely understands what the choice entails:
“What struck me and made me shake my head was all the nonsense they said about money. Migrant wages age degrading, they humiliate the soul. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t the pay that destroyed the spirits of these men and women, it was the work—the way it broke their bodies before they could even contemplate the question of salaries. The way it turned them from children to withered old creatures in the space of a few years.”
Because of his friend, Ah Hock is also familiar with how migrants are smuggled in as human cargo—fodder for an ever-expanding Malaysian economy:
“Customs officers see a big lorry loaded with sacks of rice or cages of live chickens, of course they know what’s underneath all that. They could spend an hour unloading the lorry and finding the migrants hidden underneath, but pay them enough and they won’t bother. Maybe they don’t want to find the real stash; maybe they’re afraid of discovering dead bodies, children suffocated in that tiny hollowed-out space under a mound of squawking chickens. But a tiny bit of cash makes it easy to turn your head and look the other way—someone actually pays you not to see dirty, upsetting shit. Anyone would do the same.”
Ah Hock’s fear of losing his managerial position propels a rash decision. The migrants who he wants to use turn out to not be the normal “Bangla, Myanma, Nepal” type but rather Rohingya refugees, fleeing persecution by the Burmese state, barely able to walk let alone do hard manual labor. When events culminate into a tumultuous confrontation, Ah Hock loses everything and is convicted of a violent crime, forced to spend time in prison for years for murder.
Despite the severity of the situation, the author inserts a tongue-in-cheek character in the story, who appears to represent the usual, milksop response to poverty and illegal migration by many Malaysian intellectuals. After serving his time in prison, Ah Hock finds himself the center of attention of a left-leaning lesbian Chinese Malay, who has taken an interest in his life story.
She flies from her university in New York to her country of birth to collect research for a PhD in one of those nebulous disciplines that ends with “studies”. The interaction between the researcher and Ah Hock allows for him to recount his backstory and all the events that led to Ah Hock’s crime.
She is able to concoct a social justice angle on Ah Hock’s life, the prototypical “survivor” in an unjust world, and earn herself a doctorate. At her book release party, a very confused Ah Hock is handed off from one English-speaking literary socialite to another—a scholarly scrubbing away of Ah Hock’s passed misdeeds as somehow “structural” or “systematic” and therefore forgivable.
At the party, she reminds him:
“It wasn’t murder. She laughs. The same laugh I’ve heard all evening, drifting across the farm, mingling with the sound of water. I could marry you if you want. A militant queer girl and a depressed felon—a perfect match.
That’s not even funny, I say, but I’m laughing. We both are. The moment lasts a few seconds, but seems to stretch into the night.”
As in his previous novels, Tash Aw is able to take a complicated subject and animate it in an engrossing and visceral work of fiction. Intriguing and worldly, We, The Survivors is a story about what transpires when the everyday poor are threatened by the poorest of the poor. Tash Aw challenges us to consider whether life is predestined and whether we have any power to change its path. It’s a profoundly moving novel.
KIRKUS REVIEW :
A rumination on the way systems of power and currents of hope in modern-day Malaysia can influence a life.
When Lee Hock Lye clubs a Bangladeshi stranger to death with a two-foot piece of wood, everyone is searching for a motive. Even after Ah Hock has served his three-year prison sentence, an American-educated sociology student wants to interview him for her dissertation.
She wants to understand his story. “Why? That’s what you want to know. Just like everyone else,” he confronts her early in the novel, “But like the others, you’re going to be disappointed.” Ah Hock himself has spent months reckoning with the why of it all, but to no end. “I tried to excavate the layers of my thoughts,” he explains, “digging patiently the way I used to in the mud on our farm when I was a child.”
Still, Ah Hock invites the student into his home and, over the course of several months, shares the details of his past, hoping she can “set the record straight” where his defense attorney got it wrong. Aw (Five Star Billionaire, 2013, etc.) drops readers into each phase of Ah Hock’s life, beginning with his birth in a small Malaysian fishing village, moving through his childhood days as a passive onlooker to his friend Keong’s reckless ambition, and capturing in warm detail the sense of “permanence” and “abundance” he once felt building a farm with his mother.
As he crafts Ah Hock’s narrative, Aw masterfully conveys his protagonist’s specificity while also weaving together a larger picture of the class divisions, racial biases, unjust working conditions, and gender roles that pulse under the surface. Through his interviews with the student—and his reflections on his role as a subject—Ah Hock shares the vital pieces of his story that escaped cross-examination.
A raw depiction of one man’s troubled life and the web of social forces that worked to shape it.
About the Author :
Tash Aw was born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia. He is the author of The Harmony Silk Factory, which was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize; Map of the Invisible World; and Five Star Billionaire, also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. He is also the author of a memoir of an immigrant family, The Face: Strangers on a Pier, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.
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