The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw

November 29, 2009 § 6 Comments


All around me the air had a curious odour of earth and caramel. What was it? Warmth. I had never known it to have a smell of its own, but it did. Perhaps I did not know the smell of warmth because I had never truly felt it before.

I have known books that brought smells and memories to me that I never thought I knew. I have read books that brought me back to a time when I was not yet born, and yet I could feel the sense of the place like I  have been living there all my life. I have read books that transported me to the realm between reality and fantasy, and still have me believe that I have my feet firmly planted on solid ground, whilst gliding through clouds with wings the author blessed upon me.

I wish I could say this book brought me there, but in the end, the book fell a little short of my very high expectations of it.

The story is set in pre-Independence Malaya. The Japanese have invaded China, and rumour is that they were making their way to take over Malaya as well. Johnny is getting worried, because being a communist during this era is like having an express on-way ticket to torture and death. His wife, Snow, is a rare beauty, and could potentially present even more harm to the family by attracting the attention of the Japanese army.

Amidst all this rife and tension, comes the story of how Johnny came to be the influential man he is. His son, convinced that his father is an evil man, goes on a personal quest to unearth the mysteries that shroud the character that no one seems to be able to fully understand. His perspective is a biased one, as the son is convinced of his father’s guilt of all possible crimes, even before we are told of his story.

We then take on a very different view of what actually transpired during those days just prior to the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, this time through Snow’s diary. She tells a vivid tale of her feelings, of the men she meets, and through this, we see a different side of Johnny that was not apparent in the first part of the story-telling.

The third perspective is fed to us by Johnny’s best friend, and possibly his only friend. Peter relives the memories of his past, giving us even more clues to this enigma named Johnny. No longer is Johnny just a cold-blooded traitor, but he is now painted as someone with genuine feelings, with insecurites, and with the naivete of a child that makes him more human than what his son set him out to be.

The story is a discovery of how it is never fully possible to understand another human being, no matter how close or tight the bonds you may share. It is a discovery of how one man, one issue, one event, can be coloured simply through the eyes of the one who views it. We present ourselves with reasons, excuses, or even stories, to explain things we cannot fully comprehend. We wear coloured glasses when we view the world around us, the tint of these glasses determined by our own feelings and experiences.


I enjoyed the book more towards the end, as the writing got a lot better. Or perhaps it was the voice from which I was hearing the story from; Peter’s take on the events that occured seemed to carry a lot more flavour and colour.

The setting does remind me of Malaysia very much. Perhaps I’ve just been away from my home country for too long.

There, too, was the Tunku, the Father of the Nation, raising his hand and repeating the word ‘Merdeka’ three times, the people on the Padang echoing back, the chant coming through the television sets as clear and sharp in our ears as breaking glass. Independence. Freedom. New Life. That is what the word meant to us. And although the innocent dreams we had for our country have died in the years since them, suffocated by our own poisoned ambition, nothing will ever diminish what we felt. Nothing will rob us of those stuttering sepia-washed images of Merdeka Day.


Rating: 4 3.5


§ 6 Responses to The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw

  • Susan says:

    Excellent review, Su. Did you read this for any particular challenge?

  • Sakura says:

    Great review Su. I’m glad you enjoyed it more towards the end. I read this a few years without really knowing much about it and felt it was a beautifully written book. I liked the character of Johnny, although I wished Snow had a little more depth, but Aw’s description of the jungle was wonderful.

  • su says:

    @ Susan: Thanks. Not for any challenge though. It was a book I’ve personally wanted to read for quite some time now, since the writer’s a Malaysian. =)

    @ Sakura: Yes, throughout the book, Snow remained relatively in the shadows, so the speak. Not even when the story was told through her journal did we get to see much of her.

  • mee says:

    On the topic of Malaysia, do you have any recommendation on books set in Malaysia or by Malaysian authors? The Harmony Silk Factory was longlisted for Booker and won/listed for a bunch of awards, so naturally Aw is probably the most well-known.

  • su says:

    @ mee: The first book that comes to mind is Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain. I read it earlier this year (my thoughts can be found here somewhere..) and absolutely loved it.

    But I must admit though, that I’m not reading enough books by Malaysian authors. They’re kind of hard to come by down here. But I’ve heard that Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day is a good book too, and I’m looking forward to finding it one of these days.

  • mee says:

    Yea I know about The Gift of Rain, but because it’s also longlisted for Booker! I’ll start with The Harmony Silk Factory and The Gift of Rain. They would keep me busy for a while anyway :). Thanks for the suggestion.

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