I needed a break from conservative satirists, and this book was on the sale table at work. Mmm, cheap books that didn’t sell the first time we had them. You’d think that would be an incentive for people not read them, and yet, we still sell a whole load of cheap old stock.
The death of a loved one is usually a time to reflect on your time with them, and their life. For the family of Gail Lim, however, it is a time to reflect upon other losses, about countries far away from the chilly winters of Canada, and the atrocities of the Second World War. Each member of the family has a story to tell, and the death of their daughter, of their partner, has triggered this recollection.
I kind of like these stories within a story novels. Some of them work really well – probably why I like David Mitchell so much. But this one kind of felt a bit weak. Each of the stories were good by themselves, but they didn’t really add up to anything very substantive. Granted, I now know a lot more about Indonesian and Dutch relations, but that’s about it. Many other authors have talked about the Japanese occupation of South-East Asia and, to be honest, done it better. I kept thinking of Tan Twan Eng’s excellent debut, The Gift of Rain, while I was reading the parts set in Asia, and thinking how much better it was. Which is not a good sign. The descriptions just seem a bit weak. I think that if you’re going to write a novel like this, that spans a lot of ground, you really need a stronger prose style to support everything that’s going. Not that the style isn’t good – I really enjoyed reading all the turns of phrase and the such – but I still think that is doesn’t quite suit what this book tries to do.
The characters themselves are also nothing to write home about. Each one is there, and you kind of know what they’re about, but the story lets you fill in the blanks, and you have to assume a lot of what is going on in the present day, which is fine, I suppose. If you like that kind of thing. Again, it’s this kind of ‘flowery’ prose that drags down the concept and characters.
The only other complaint I have to make is that I’m not sure how well researched the bits in Australia are. For a start, it does not snow in Melbourne on a regular basis, and if you live in the centre of the city, you are unlikely to find a small herd of kangaroos jumping majestically across the landscape. Just throwing it out there.
Ultimately, this book is ok. And that’s about it. It didn’t blow me away, and I didn’t hate reading it. I still think the big thing is the prose – it’s good, but it really doesn’t suit what Thien is trying to do in this novel. It needs to be longer, bolder, brasher. Instead, it’s a little bit weak and understated, but not in a good way. And she needs to learn what Australia is really like.