The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw

Unravelling the strands of memory
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The Independent Culture

In this beguiling debut novel, the mining land of Malaysia's Kinta Valley is haunted by Johnny Lim - one-time cloth merchant, clandestine Communist and criminal, who lived there before, during and after the Second World War. Johnny's morally ambiguous life is refracted through the narratives of his embittered son Jasper, his lonely wife Snow, and his only friend Peter. They show how Johnny's web of deceit grew stronger while the delicate fabric of family and friendship was torn apart.

In this beguiling debut novel, the mining land of Malaysia's Kinta Valley is haunted by Johnny Lim - one-time cloth merchant, clandestine Communist and criminal, who lived there before, during and after the Second World War. Johnny's morally ambiguous life is refracted through the narratives of his embittered son Jasper, his lonely wife Snow, and his only friend Peter. They show how Johnny's web of deceit grew stronger while the delicate fabric of family and friendship was torn apart.

These tales are powered by the paradoxical desire to retrieve the past but escape from it. The novel opens with the present-day narrative of Jasper, who has waded through newspapers and memories to understand why his father became a "liar, a cheat, a traitor and a skirt-chaser". Probably the son of Chinese peasants lured by the lush Malaysian plantations, Johnny was hardened by brutal mine owners and, fuelled by megalomania and malice, rose to become the valley's richest man through a litany of unpunished crimes. His Harmony Silk Factory became "the most famous palace of sin in the country". However, the "retelling of history" is imperfect, admits Jasper, who cannot remember his beautiful mother, Snow.

Tash Aw skilfully highlights the limitations of individual perspective, as each narrator forces a reappraisal of Johnny's character. Intense extracts from Snow's 1940s diary chronicle a journey into the jungle. Although the couple's lives are tangled together, there is huge emotional distance between them. Anchorless in a quicksand society, they drown in confusion as the Japanese prepare to invade.

Silk - the novel's seductive if unsubtle leitmotif - is woven throughout in literal and metaphorical images. Peter is bewitched by the "cold chame- leon" silk sold by Johnny (himself chameleon-like). Most poignantly, memories are like silk - spun out of nothing. In the final part, Peter, now an old man, remembers his secret love for Snow, and "sensations that the years have layered on top of the initial emptiness, like sheet after sheet of silk covering a bare table".

Peter plans a garden: his struggle against the jungle's "insidious invasion". Here are people honing sealed spaces for themselves, a diary or garden. It is a Sisyphean task. The novel's refrain is that "death erases all traces, all memories", but traces of Johnny's past pain leak into the present, blotting Peter's hope.

The vice-like grip of the dead, the paper-thin ties of the living: many compelling themes are braided into this original, haunting novel. Aw picks at the knots in relationships, and in Malaysia's history, to unravel strands of illumination. Yet there are several loose ends from which readers must spin their own stories. It is these frayed seams, these broken ties - the constant clutching after, yet eluding of connection - that exert the most powerful emotional pull.

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