We, The Survivors

Review of Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Review

Various degrees of financial precariousness and a vibrant—yet maddeningly hot and humid—Malaysia are the theme and setting of Tash Aw’s newest novel We, The Survivors. Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.

The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living. Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill. A young Ah Hock reflects:

… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.

Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tash Aw’s (歐大旭) We, The Survivors originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of that yummy-looking Malaysian mooncake for this re-post is via the talented مانفی. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Review of Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Riverhead Books, 2019)

Review

Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s story of Bangkok is the most complete and engrossing tale of this megacity of fifteen million souls ever portrayed in a single publication. His debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is as much an ode to the metropolis’s extremes as it is to the wide-ranging and singular characters that animate its streets and sois.

All of the characters of this novel connect with Bangkok, or what Bangkok once was, in a meaningful way. Some of Pitchaya’s uprooted individuals are displaced from a physical locality—others from traditions and histories that defined earlier versions of themselves and their communities. Those rituals they perform, some of them spiritual and some of them diurnal, are a way to connect themselves to a remembered past. Bangkok itself is an apt exemplar, as the town was born as a refuge after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Much of early Bangkok was designed in remembrance of that former international trading port and royal house farther up the Chao Phraya River. Pitchaya artfully intertwines the fate of Bangkok—and what he later imagines as New Bangkok after a terrible flooding—with the main characters’ longing for things past.

The book contains many… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Bangkok Wakes to Rain originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Igor Bilic from Suzanne Nam‘s “The Truth about Thailand’s Rainy Season” in TripSavvy. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Vessel: Lisa A. Nichols on Family and Galaxies Far Far Away

Review of Lisa A. Nichols’ Vessel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2019)

Rich Characters

The character development is what really drew me in more than anything else for this delightful novel by Lisa A. Nichols. The book Vessel is a testament of how enjoyable a story can be when the author takes the time to flesh out the main characters.

This novel is about the sacrifices and excitement of intergalactic travel in a future not too distant from our own. The story follows the protagonist Acting Commander Catherine Wells of the Sagittarius starship and her misadventures as her mission through a fictionalized time-space wormhole—an Einstein-Rosen bridge dubbed “ERB Prime” and not far from Mar’s orbit—goes awry. The wormhole leads to one of the hypothesized habitable planets that orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star found in the constellation Aquarius. There, Catherine and her crew make first contact with what turns out to be a hostile species.

The Return Home

The main plot driver is not so much the mission but rather the challenges Catherine has when returning home to Earth. She has amnesia about much of her mission and only knows that she is the sole survivor of her crew. In between her struggles with the family she left behind for nine years and the mistrust of many of her colleagues at NASA, Catherine slowly begins to piece together what went wrong on the mission to TRAPPIST-1.

She hadn’t expected that so much about coming home would hurt this much. The pain of understanding the scope of her memory loss… The pain of returning without her crew. And the pain of just being.

First Encounter

A few aliens do make an appearance and I think they’re pretty cool! As Catherine’s memory comes back to her toward the end of the book, we learn that many of the geological formations on one of the semi-habitable planets were actually sentient all along.

They prove to be less than happy with mankind and its penchant for colonizing the unknown. These hive-mind creatures infect many of the crew, including Catherine. Her escape from their power once on Earth makes for a fun read.

Highly Recommended

I love having a bit of sci-fi in the mix and Vessel by Lisa A. Nichols proved to be a fun, quick read that I highly recommend!

*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Visit the author Lisa A. Nichols’ website. Image-photo credit for the top of this post is from the talented eReSaW at DeviantArt. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.

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The Last Gods of Indochine

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine.

Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.

The novel unfurls over two distinct and widely separated periods of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s past. The first is embodied by the protagonist Jacqueline Mouhot in her visit to Angkor during the interwar years in French Indochina. The second period is set in opposition to, and ultimately intertwined with, the 13th-century struggles of a peasant by the name of Paaku against a despotic monarch of the ancient Khmer Empire.

Jacqueline Mouhot is the granddaughter of explorer and naturalist grandfather Henri Mouhot (1826-61), whose steps she seeks to retrace after receiving an invitation by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to an opening of a temple restoration project in his honor.  Her story is a familiar one of self-discovery in foreign lands, complicated by the tragic choices she had to make as a volunteer nurse with the Anglo-French Red Cross during the Great War and her struggle to face that earlier period in her life.

The granddaughter Jacqueline and her interactions with her contemporaries in colonial Cambodia are fictional. Many of the names that appear in her travels—archeologists Louis Finot (1864-1935) and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949), curator Henri Marchal (1876-1970), and the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945)—are however historical. They all represent a bygone era during which to be a professional “Orientalist” did not immediately connote a problematic image of western imperialism.

The story itself is driven not so much by the adventures of Jacqueline, but rather by the preternatural connection she has with… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Angkor Wat for this re-post goes to the talented Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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