This book by Malaysian lawyer Tan Twan Eng was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. A belated birthday gift to me by my Malaysian friend in April, I was ecstatic to meet Tan during the recent Singapore Writers Festival.
I love his prose, the description alive and vivid – Somewhere down the road, the Hardwickes’ gardener was burning the leaves he had raked during the day and the smell of the smoke tinged the light with sweetness and sorrow. The gravel path sounded like ice being crunched as we walked past the fountain and the row of palm trees.
He likes to make use of similes, perhaps a tad too often – all the seats had been taken up by plump middle aged women who were fanning themselves furiously, like birds flapping their wings in an overcrowded cage.
The story, is set in late 1930s in Penang, just before World War II. The protagonist, 16 year old Philip Hutton is the youngest son of British merchant Noel and his late second wife, a rich local girl from Ipoh who married him despite her father’s disapproval. Of mixed parentage, Philip never feels he belongs to either side.
Once while his family was away in Britain for vacation, he meets Endo-san, a Japanese attached with the consulate who rents an island from his father. Both felt a connection and Philip ends up learning the art of Aikido, a Japanese martial art from Endo. The bond between them was so strong that when war finally breaks in South East Asia, Philip was horrified to learn he has been made used of by Endo-san.
This coming of age story is tender and the love between Philip and his mentor is agonising. Both have a duty to their country, and that means betraying their relationship to each other. Reading their story makes me wonder what their relationship was in the last life, as I sense an intimacy not unlike lovers. Philip, as we followed him through the war years from 16 to 19, has a maturity unseen in this age.
Story aside, one can learn much history from this book, as many historical figures and events described are real. Sook Ching, the term where thousands of Chinese were massacred was narrated so intimately because we are involved in the story, unlike reading it in history book. I like how he describes the way coolies eat their meals, always with one foot on the stool. Or I heard the cries of a hawker and the tok tok sound as he knocked on the wooden clappers while pedaling his pushcart past the house, selling wanton noodles. It brings back a bygone era I once knew as a child.
Clever too is the narration of the story of the butterfly lovers and how it’s was aptly intertwined in the real story.
This book is a treat to read and I took six weeks to slowly saviour it, bit by bit. Do we really have a last life where unfinished relationship gets to straighten out in later life times? Who knows.