This is the story of Johnny Lim, a textile merchant, Communist and possible gangster. There are three narrators, Jaspar, Johnny’s son, who has researched his father’s life, and as a grown man is looking at his father’s life in the 1940s, shortly before Jaspar’s birth; Snow, Johnny’s wife, whose narrative is in diary form, written at the time of the events which she describes; and Peter, Johnny’s former best friend, who writes as an old man recounting the events. All three narratives at times describe the same events, from differing points of view.
The book centres around a trip taken by Snow, Johnny, Peter, an ex-pat English business man named Frederick Honey, and an enigmatic Japanese professor named Kunichika, when they voyage to the legendary Seven Maidens island. The imminent invasion of Malaysia by the Japanese forms a backdrop to the story.
I really enjoyed the book. Each narrator has his or her own unique character, and their telling of the story sometimes differs depending on their own perception of the situations they find themselves in. Interestingly (and I imagine deliberately on the part of the author), the reader never actually gets to know Johnny very well, as he is described according to the point of view of the narrator. Whereas Jaspar sees his father as an evil man, Snow and Peter describe a man who seems at odds with Jaspar’s opinion (or course, Jaspar is also relying on sources for his research which probably differ in reliability, and both Snow and Peter are swayed by their own feelings about Johnny).
The story is less about the plot, and more about the characters themselves. For me, the most interesting character was Snow, perhaps because her story was being written as events unfolded.
All in all, this was a very enjoyable book. It is Tash Aw’s first novel, and I would definitely read more by him.