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1stBookReview.com » Blog Archive » The Harmony Silk Factory By Tash Aw
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• Friday, February 26th, 2010

Tash Aw was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1971 from Malaysian parents. When he was two years old his parents moved back to their homeland, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he grew up. He was educated at a Catholic School and moved to England with his parents when he was in his teens.

He read law at the University of Cambridge and Warwick and with his degree in hand, he worked in various jobs, including as a lawyer for four years. In 2002 he obtained a degree at the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, while working on his first novel which he completed during this time.

The Harmony Silk Factory, Tash Aw’s first novel, was published in 2005. It was long listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, won the 2005 Whitbread Book Award First Novel Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region), as well as the Guardian First Book Prize. It was also long listed for the 2007 International Impac Dublin Award.

The Harmony Silk Factory was translated to several languages. Tash Aw, comments on Literature, film and culture in South East Asia for the BBC on a regular basis. Tash Aw’s second novel, Map of the Invisible World, was published in May 2009. He currently lives in Islington, London.

The Harmony Silk Factory is set in the 1930s and 1940s with the background of the second world war and the Japanese who are about to invade British occupied Malaysia. The title of the book refers to Johnny Lim’s textile shop in the Kinta valley, where he ran his illegal shady businesses and his political affairs.

The novel is divided into three parts. Each part represents the opinion of the narrator and his version of Johnny’s mysterious life, by going backwards and forwards in time.

His son Jasper, who is now in his forties and seems to dislike his father strongly, starts the narration in a subjective way. He is followed by Johnny’s famously beautiful, unfaithful, well-bred, deceased wife, Snow Soong, who died at childbirth, through her diary. The third and last version of the novel is by Johnny Lim’s best friend, the eccentric British expatriate, Peter Wormwood, who is in his seventies and spent most of his life in Malaysia.

Peter reminisces about the past, while debating with his inmates about the flora and fauna in order to plan a design for an English style garden in the old people’s home, run by the Catholic Church, where he now lives.

Three different characters, three distinct accounts and viewpoints about the same events, re-shaped by each narrator in order to shed a variety of light on the main character, the Chinese born, Johnny Lim, the self made, highly ambitious rich merchant.

Jasper, his son portrays him as an objectionable, hateful, dishonest, murderer, traitor and Machiavellian personality. His wife, Snow Soong, sees him as a naive, taciturn person of a humble background. While his friend Peter describes him as the best and only friend he ever had.

Throughout the story the reader never finds out Johnny Lim’s version in order to surmise if he was a hero or a villain or read his side of the story. In fact, the author ends his novel with a few loose ends, maybe as an invitation for the reader to draw his own conclusion.

The reader better gets to know the psychologically tortured, repressed feelings of the human imperfection of these well developed main characters: Johnny Lim, Snow Soong, Peter Wormwood, his unpleasant compatriot, Frederick Honey, the manager of the British controlled tin mine and the suavely cunning, multi-lingual, highly cultured, Japanese professor Mamoru Kunichika, to whom Snow was strongly attracted during their action-adventure trip to the mysterious Seven Maiden islands, which is supposed to be Johnny and Snows belated honeymoon trip.

The Harmony Silk Factory is a novel without much action, with loose ends and yet it’s a pleasurable book to read. Because of the author’s skillful writing, his prose is pure and uncluttered and his psychological analysis of each character with his strength and weaknesses, gives a credible dimension to the story. Last but not least is his vivid description of the luxuriant nature of the beautiful Malaysia.

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