What is it about?
Tan Twan Eng’s masterpiece is a tale of dualities: war and peace; good and evil; fate and free will; life and death; duty and morality; past and future. These themes of duality are further expanded on in the characters – chiefly, in the parallels between the main character Philip and his best friend, Kon, as well as the split Philip feels between the two nationalities that make him up (his mother was Chinese, his father English, and both societies seem to shun him). So, this is a coming-0f-age story of parallels and duality, set in Penang, Malaya, before and during World War Two, with one of the highest literary body counts my poor heart has ever had to endure. We follow sixteen-year-old Philip, son of an influential English businessman, as his world is changed by the arrival of an enigmatic Japanese man, and is then shattered by a war that makes him into both a monster and a hero.
Is it any good?
This is a book that takes a lot of time and energy to read – at least, it did for me. In parts it lost me as I floated over Eng’s few words that failed to tether my mind to the page. So yes, it was hard work. But then again, the best things in life usually are. The storyline has Game Of Thrones levels of perplexity, and was clearly meticulously planned from the outset; the end left me fully satisfied and there were no loose ends flailing from the magnificent technicolour tapestry that Eng has crafted. The main character, Philip Hutton, is something rare in a protagonist – he is not an overly wonderful specimen of the good of humanity. Yes, he (usually) has the best intentions at heart but he still makes some pretty abysmal life choices. He is a main character who is actually human, and for that I salute Tan Twan Eng. Don’t even get me started on the tidal wave of homoerotic undertones held within the pages of this epic novel. This is not a book that will change your life, but it will definitely change your outlook on it.
How long did it take to read: six days
For fans of: The Samurai’s Garden, Memoirs of a Geisha, Game of Thrones, deep thinking, mindfulness, books that break your heart in beautiful ways
This book tastes like: frozen coconut milk