Book Group: Alice Jones reviews 'The Harmony Silk Factory' by Tash Aw

A Protean figure amid the jungle
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The Independent Culture

Seen from these three perspectives, Johnny becomes a Protean figure, developing from an arch villain who will stop at nothing, not even murder, to build up his textile business at the Harmony silk factory, to a gentle lover of English literature; from a communist guerrilla to a mercenary collaborator and from a cuckolded husband to a "skirt-chaser of the very highest order". Aw revels in the inconsistencies in each of the three accounts, just as Johnny favours the rough batik cloth whose " dyes were uneven" and whose "patterns, traced out by hand, were never consistent", over the smoothest luxury silks. Aw endows each character with equal depth and individuality, but ultimately leaves them as unknowable as the Malaysian jungle in which their drama unfolds. The only constant seems to be a fascination with, and respect for, the Malaysian landscape and its history, which are celebrated here in all their rich, lush variety.

Aw's prose is beautifully wrought and thoughtful, switching with agility between comedy, suspense, romance and lyrical description. While at times his metaphors are slightly clunky and his female voice (in Snow's diary) lacks the convincing brio of his male narrators, The Harmony Silk Factory is an impressive first novel by a promising new Malaysian voice.

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