The Harmony Silk Factory traces the story of textile merchant Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant living in British Malaya in the first half of the twentieth century. Johnny’s factory is the most impressive structure in the region, and to the inhabitants of the Kinta Valley Johnny is a hero—a Communist who fought the Japanese when they invaded, ready to sacrifice his life for the welfare of his people. But to his son, Jasper, Johnny is a crook and a collaborator who betrayed the very people he pretended to serve, and the Harmony Silk Factory is merely a front for his father’s illegal businesses. This debut novel from Tash Aw gives us an exquisitely written look into another culture at a moment of crisis.
What I Liked
This book starts off beautifully. Told almost like a tall tale, the shadowy exploits of the legendary character Johnny Lim, as related by his son Jasper, are captivating. Johnny’s story dives into the heart of Communism’s grasp on Malaysia around the time of World War II, and explores the journey of a humble man through the murky ethics of power. Johnny remains a mystery even as we learn his history, and the subtle gaps in Jasper’s story allow the tale to retain an air of uncertainty that kept me glued to the page. Aw’s writing is bold and confident, swaggering across the page with an ease that makes the reading a breeze and a delight.
What I Didn’t Like
Unfortunately, as soon as the perspective switches away from Jasper for the latter two thirds of the book, the story descends into a Hemingway-esque nightmare. Those of you who know me know that I’m not a fan of Hemingway–the obsessive focus on mindless dialogue makes reading his books feel like wading through a confusing sludge of mundanity. Yep, I said it, and I mean it. Despite it’s promising start, The Harmony Silk Factory somehow completely changed direction and became a confusing, poorly related story of an ill-fated vacation. Drama abounds, and yet none of it is interesting. Although the air of mystery and uncertainty remains, the plot is such drivel that I often fell asleep while trying to make my way through. It feels like a completely different book than the one I began reading at the start, and I finished it feeling enormously disappointed and confused.
As much as I loved the start of this book, it’s just not worth it. Even if you’re a fan of Hemingway, as so many of you strange people are, the book lacks the clarity and import to make it worth the time it takes to read it. I’ll keep an eye on Tash Aw in case he decides to write a book more in line with the first part of this book, but until then, I can’t recommend this one.
About the Author
Born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents, Tash Aw grew up in Kuala Lumpur before moving to England in his teens. He studied law at the University of Cambridge and University of Warwick, then moved to London to write. After graduating he worked at a number of jobs, including as a lawyer for four years whilst writing his debut novel, which he completed during the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. Based on royalties as well as prizes, Aw is the most successful Malaysian writer of recent years. Following the announcement of the Booker longlist, the Whitbread Award and his Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, he became a celebrity in Malaysia and Singapore, and is now one of the most respected literary figures in Southeast Asia.