The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw

It’s been a long, long time since I read a book which I just couldn’t put down. It’s been a long, long time since I read a book which made me felt like re-reading it to search for those subtle nuances which I may have missed in the first reading, and to gain a new (and perhaps more accurate) perspective on the anti-hero.

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It’s been a long, long time since I read a book with such excitement, anticipation and intensity page after page. And this book is The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw, the Whitbread First Novel Award (now known as Costa Book Awards) winner of 2005.

I came across this book many times before in various bookstores when I was browsing the shelves of Asian literature. I dismissed it as just another literature wannabe, and having had a disappointing experience with the work of another Malaysian author, I didn’t have any plans at all to read this book despite its award-winning status.

I picked up this book last month from the neighbourhood book rental shop out of desperation. There was no other noteworthy titles available on that day, and I had to get something in exchange for those books which I returned. So I gave this book a try; and good thing I did.

I was captivated from the very first page. Set during the World War Two in pre-independence Malaya, this is the story of Johnny Lim, a textile merchant and communist, as narrated by three persons. His only son, Jasper, presented a Johnny who was ruthless, cruel, greedy for power, disloyal – the worst possible crook. He described him as ‘a liar, a cheat, a traitor, and a skirt-chaser. Of the very highest order.’ Johnny’s beautiful wife, Snow Soong, is the daughter of the richest man in Kinta Valley. Her portrayal of Johnny through her diary which she kept before she passed away during childbirth was of a man who is timid, weak and helpless. Planning for a garden for the old folks’ home which he spent the rest of his life in, Peter Wormwood, an Englishman who was Johnny’s one-time good friend, reminisces about a Johnny who was eager to learn and merely a victim of circumstances.

After I finished the book, I was left with many questions. What kind of person Johnny really is? The answer was nowhere to be found in the book – and I guess this is what happens in real life too. Our construction of the world around us and the people in it are often influenced by our own limited understanding, perspective and perhaps even prejudice. No one could ever give an accurate picture of another person, and this is the one captivating aspect of this book. We will never know who Johnny really is based on the account of these three persons which at times contradict each other.

It is also interesting that as I re-read some pages of the book, I found the sections where the three narrators’ paths crossed. Jasper recalled seeing an Englishman whom he thought was a tourist or a madman sitting on the river bank when he was playing as a child while Peter remembered how he immediately recognized whom Jasper was as he was sitting on that river bank.

I am also impressed by how distinct the voices of the three narrators are. Jasper’s is one trying to be objective but there’s a hint of contempt and bitterness; Snow’s reflection in her diary sounded very much like the perspective of a lonely wife; Peter’s reminiscence alternated between the present and the past and gave us an insight into the mind of an Englishman who spent most of his life in a seemingly exotic country which he claimed to have become a native of.

For professional reviews of this book:

The Guardian

Time Magazine

The Independent UK


The Age Australia


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