Reading the World: Asia (Part Two)

The second part of our reading adventure around Asia!  Again, I must apologise for the lack of diversity and overrepresentation of Japan overall; I will work on my Asian reading in future, and that is a promise.

97800992864311. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (China)
‘1971: Mao’s cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to ‘re-education’ camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand. The boys’ true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.’

2. Geisha by Liza Dalby (Japan)
‘Liza Dalby, author of The Tale of Murasaki, is the only non-Japanese woman ever to have become a geisha. This is her unique insight into the extraordinary, closed world of the geisha, a world of grace, beauty and tradition that has long fascinated and enthralled the West. Taking us to the heart of a way of life normally hidden from the public gaze, Liza Dalby shows us the detailed reality that lies behind the bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha and opens our eyes to an ancient profession that continues to survive in today’s modern Japan.’

3. The Flamboya Tree: A Family’s Wartime Courage by Clara Olink Kelly (Indonesia)
‘When the Japanese invaded the beautiful Indonesian island of Java during the Second World War Clara Kelly was four years old. Her family was separated, her father sent to work on the Burma railway, and she together with her mother and her two brothers, one a six-week-old baby, was sent to a ‘women’s camp’. They were interned there until the end of the war. Clara’s descriptions of the appalling deprivations and impersonal brutality of the camp, easily recognisable as the same techniques used in the infamously cruel Japanes prisoner of war camps – standing in the baking heat for hours of ‘Tenko’ role-call, living on one cup of rice a day – are countered by the courage and resilience shown by all the internees, most poignantly her own mother.’

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri ((partially set in) India) 9780006551805
‘”When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…” For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. ‘

5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
‘Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.’

97807475683396. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (China)
‘To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.’

7. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Bangladesh, in part)
‘Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London’s East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home. Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister Hasina back in the village. But the rebellious Hasina has kicked against cultural tradition and run off in a ‘love marriage’ with the man of her dreams. When he suddenly turns violent, she is forced into the degrading job of garment girl in a cloth factory. Confined in her flat by tradition and family duty, Nazneen also sews furiously for a living, shut away with her buttons and linings – until the radical Karim steps unexpectedly into her life. On a background of racial conflict and tension, they embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen finally to take control of her fate. Strikingly imagined, gracious and funny, this novel is at once epic and intimate. Exploring the role of Fate in our lives – those who accept it; those who defy it – it traces the extraordinary transformation of an Asian girl, from cautious and shy to bold and dignified woman.’

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India) 9780739377956
‘”The Jungle Book “meets “Not Wanted On the Voyage” in a triumph of storytelling and originality: a novel, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God. Piscine Molitor Patel, nicknamed Pi, lives in Pondicherry, India, where his family runs a zoo. Little Pi is a great reader. He devours books on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and to the surprise of his secular parents, becomes devoted to all three religions. When the parents decide to emigrate to Canada, the family boards a cargo ship with many of the animals that are going to new zoological homes in North America, and bravely sets sail for the New World. Alas, the ship sinks. A solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors: Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. With intelligence, daring and inexpressible fear, Pi manages to keep his wits about him as the animals begin to assert their places in the foodchain; it is the tiger, Richard Parker, with whom he must develop an inviolable understanding. ‘

9. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (Malaya)
‘Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result. After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs.’

10. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (China)
‘This novel, told from the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers and their four American-Chinese daughters, examines the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, and the problems of cultural identity the characters face.’


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One From the Archive: ‘The White Pearl’ by Kate Furnivall ****

First published in March 2012.

The White Pearl is Kate Furnivall’s fifth novel. It takes place in Palur, Malaya – ‘a town built by Englishmen for Englishmen’ which was built to ‘demonstrate to the natives how civilised people lived’ – and begins in November 1941. It focuses upon the character of Constance Hadley, the wife of wealthy rubber plantation owner Nigel. She is discontent with her life in Malaya and her far from happy marriage, points which Furnivall makes clear from the outset. Nigel is a stark character at times, and seems utterly terrified of Connie showing emotion or love towards him. She cannot even touch his arm without his body becoming rigid with fear. As a result of this, Connie is a far more compassionate character throughout than Nigel, who is heavily interested in politics and the affairs of the war, appears to be.

Connie’s son Teddy, a bright and inquisitive seven year old, was born in Malaya and is far more used to life in the country than his mother, who still has difficulty adapting to the situation in which she finds herself. The differences between mother and son are apparent, from Teddy’s ‘superior command’ of the language, to the fact that ‘he wasn’t afraid of snakes the way she was, a gut-gripping terror that paralysed her’.

The opening sentence – ‘It was not the first time Connie had killed someone’ – is intriguing and launches the reader straight into the story. This relates to an incident in which Connie loses control of the car she is driving and kills a woman who haunts her dreams. Stark differences between the white families living in Malaya and the ‘natives’ have also been portrayed throughout The White Pearl. Connie faces no consequences with regard to her killing of the Malay woman, as the police are more than happy to just sweep it under the carpet and move on. Connie, on the other hand, is desperate to learn something about the woman she killed and about the children she has left without a mother. In consequence, the story does not just follow Connie and her husband and child, but also Maya and Razak Jumat, the twins of the woman she killed. She feels a compulsion to help them in order to eradicate the guilt she feels.

Other characters also feature throughout The White Pearl, and include the Hadleys’ house-boy Masur, stylish Flight Lieutenant Johnnie Blake, ‘moody’ Mr Fitzpayne, fellow colonial wife Harriet Court and Japanese trader Shohei Takehashi, with whom Connie conducts an affair. The novel is written with such compassion for Connie and the reader can see that Furnivall cares about her characters merely due to her portrayal of them. Connie’s thoughts are included in italics throughout, running concurrently with the narrative and dialogue.

The White Pearl of the novel’s title is a sailing yacht purchased for Connie by her husband as a wedding present. This yacht becomes an intrinsic part of the novel when the attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii are launched, an event which tears the family apart, forcing them to flee Malaya along with several friends.

Many parallels are created throughout, ranging from wealth to poverty and sad lives to privileged ones, to the great disparities between whites and the local people. The themes which Furnivall touches on include envy, fear, mistrust, guilt and deception, as well as the building up of outward facades which differ so greatly to what lies beneath them.

The White Pearl is told from a third person perspective. This allows us to get a feel of the characters straight away – we know what drives them and can further understand them and their actions in consequence.

Furnivall’s descriptions work very well, particularly when she focuses upon the oppressive heat of Malaya, the evocative descriptions of places and suspended moments in the lives of her characters. She has made wonderful use of social and historical information, including such aspects as guidelines for the running of rubber plantations, labour strikes and the great chasms which exist within the narrow-minded society. Undertones of sinister goings-on – Chinese triads, prostitution and opium, for example – are also included. This ensures that the novel is historically grounded throughout. A sense of foreboding is created almost from the outset with sentences like ‘the jungle was stamping its feet’. Furnivall’s personification of the nature in Malaya allows the surroundings to become a character, and their overwhelming stance in the lives of the all involved is evoked very well. Such geographical precision really helps to set the scene.

The vocabulary used, particularly with regard to the phrases uttered by Nigel, fit well with the period. Furnivall has also included words from the local dialect which are shown in italics with English translations beside them. This technique works well and is not overdone.

The White Pearl is an absorbing novel, which reads almost like an adventure story in some places. The story itself is incredibly enjoyable but the unrealistic ending does unfortunately let the book down.

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