Book Group: Your views on September book, 'The Harmony Silk Factory' by Tash Aw

Smoothness in triplicate
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The Independent Culture

Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory may not have made the leap from Booker longlist to nestle among the likes of Barnes and the two Smiths on this year's shortlist, but I am now pleased to deliver the only verdict that really matters, that of The Independent Book Group. In shirleymh's bold words: "There are plenty of reasons why The Harmony Silk Factory should have been judged the best novel of the year. The story is woven like fine silk... and the reader is constantly having to think back, to shift perspectives in the light of new information." The views expressed by other members of the group were, for the most part, in harmony.

All readers chimed in chorus that The Harmony Silk Factory represented a huge achievement for the debut novelist Tash Aw. HaydnT enthused: "It was a pleasure to find a first novel that was so rewarding." LJ2026 agreed, comparing it to January's popular Book Group choice, "As a first novel, I thought this was excellent and the best choice since The Time Traveller's Wife, also a first novel." Even Ramblingsid, who voiced some reservations about the work, grudgingly conceded, "An excellent first novel."

Mo245 summed up Aw's creative concoction as "cultural soup". HaydnT picked up on the culinary metaphor, stating that "the essential ingredient... was the fact that Johnny, the central character, remains always in the background." Mo245 concurred, "it's an interesting feature to have a book centred around a person who is only ever looked at through the eyes of others, which examines the nature of relationships."

Most were impressed by Aw's agile weaving of three separate narrative voices into a single, smooth thread. Mo245 "thoroughly enjoyed the prose and the cultural clashes" while LJ2026 thought that "the story got progressively better" and "the use of three individuals telling the same story, but through their eyes was original." Although OliviaDW found the novel "disappointingly bland", she admitted that " what Tash Aw did succeed in doing was evoking three completely different characters within each third of the book." She was unimpressed by the plot however, likening it to "a film, with really fantastic actors clearly defining each role, a great set, intelligent and dedicated director, but with a poor and unengaging plot that let the film down. What storyline there was, was predictable and anti-climatic. I felt no connection whatsoever with the characters - they were emotionless."

OliviaDW's criticism of the plot (or lack of it) was an unusual note in the discussion. HaydnT sung the praises of the "air of mystery" and "liked the way that different facets of the story emerged and were resolved at different stages." shirleymh found herself entranced, describing the narrative suspense as "superb" while Jellyfeeble found the story "extraordinary and compelling".

For most readers, Johnny Lim created the main narrative intrigue. LJ2026 "wasn't sure what to think about the main character Johnny". Ramblingsid also struggled with the mysterious antihero: "But what about Johnny? Is it an inherent problem in the book that it gives us three accounts of this character from three very different points of view? By the end of the book he seemed more enigmatic than he did at the beginning."

For Mo245, the riddle at the heart of the novel led to more fundamental questions about the nature of parenthood, family and existence itself: " As children, do any of us really understand our parents? Our understanding is invariably based upon the stories we are told by them, their relations and friends. We only live with them as children, when the relationship is clouded by our own solipsism. Perhaps that is one of the points, when we are gone, our entire life is only recounted through other people's perceptions of us."

Readers were appreciative of Aw's style. Glynhaggett said: "I found this generally a beautifully written piece, demonstrating both the ability and the willingness to adopt different styles to convey different views and interpretations. The gentle pace and the fact that there isn't that much "action" as such make effective characterisation all the more important, and I felt it succeeded for the most part in that respect." LJ2026 also "liked Tash Aw's style of writing. It was easy going enough to maintain my interest particularly at the beginning of the book, but with enough depth to create a sense of time and place. In places I thought his prose was very rich." For clare60, the novel "evoked memories of Somerset Maugham in its descriptions of place and society" while HaydnT "detected a lot of Graham Greene."

Despite this admiration of Aw's aesthetics, the group seemed to get bogged down in a bizarre discussion of his word-usage, making, one might argue, a sow's ear out of the silk purse of his richly textured prose. HaydnT set the ball rolling with a criticism of Aw's interchanging of "while" and "whilst". Glynhaggett waded in with a stylistic explanation, seeing it as "an attempt to convey an archaic form of language."

To get back to moving towards a verdict: while OliviaDW remained resolute in her negative opinion "I was glad to reach the end - mainly so I could start another book," Mo245 declared "I find I want to re-read the book, to re-examine Jasper's stilted attempts to understand his father."

Ramblingsid occupied a middle ground: "I found this an easy book to read but a difficult book to make a judgement about. The book was enjoyable. I never tired of it or grew bored with it. I always wanted to read on. On the other hand is it a good book or a bad book? I can't really say", he ruminated.

After much soul-searching, he finally came up with the much-anticipated judgement, which neatly summarised the feelings of the book group: "No, I am going to have to make up my mind and declare that this is indeed a 'good' book, and a subtle and enigmatic one at that."

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