The Harmony Silk Factory
by Tash Aw
Love in the Time of Communism and Colonialism
A review by Anna Godbersen
Don't be misled; Tash Aw's debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory is not the exotic, atmospheric, ghost-heavy book that its title seems to suggest. As the first of Aw's three narrators tells us in his first sentence, the Harmony Silk Factory was itself a sham, a front for illegal business, and it did not come into existence until 1942, after the main events of the story have already taken place.
Of course, this first narrator seems to be the unreliable type -- he claims to be dull and studious, and to know what he knows through "books, official records, memoirs." Like the two narrators that follow, he is telling the story of Johnny Lim (merchant, Communist), but he is also Johnny's son, Jasper. From the son's point of view, Johnny is a beautiful monster, notorious and evil in a manner that exhausts superlatives. Jasper examines Johnny's path to political power, how he became the boss of the Kinta Valley, in British-controlled Malaysia, in the years before the Japanese occupation. Jasper's mother, the imperious Snow Soong, narrates the second part of the novel, through a diary that she kept in 1941. She reveals a radically different side of Johnny; in her eyes, he is insecure, lower class, boyish. The third narrator is the flamboyant Englishman Peter Wormwood, a friend of Johnny's who casts him in yet another light. Alone among the narrators, Peter sees Johnny as human and knowable, but there are betrayals yet, and Peter will tell his side of the story with decades of hindsight, old, alone and slightly mad himself.
The jacket copy presents Tash Aw's novel as an insider's view of Malaysia, a counterpoint to the colonial literature of Conrad and Maugham. Strangely enough, it is the third part of The Harmony Silk Factory -- narrated by an Englishman -- that feels the most atmospheric, and the most alive. Peter's narrative makes the other two, occasionally plodding, sections work, and they make a collective statement about the inherent flaws of history and memory. And for all the Communism and Colonialism in the background, the final two sections hang together as the surprisingly compelling story of a love triangle.
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