Based on the fictional life of a Euro-Asian man, Philip Hutton, who is born to a wealthy British trader and a Chinese mother in Penang in the 1920s. The story begins with the arrival of an elderly Japanese woman arriving at Istana, Philip’s house, and introduces herself as an old friend of Hayato Endo (otherwise known as Endo-san), a Japanese man who Philip became close to during the war. Philip begins to recount his meeting with Endo-san back in 1939 when Philip, then in his teens, was increasingly unsure of his roots, especially since his mother died when he was five. He’d grown up with his three older British siblings, who were products of a former marriage, in a house where the Chinese and Malayans were servants. When his family decide to embark on another visit to Britain, Philip asks to stay in Penang as he’d felt, on previous visits, that although his British siblings had embraced, and been welcomed into, the British society he, because of his Chinese features, had been shunned. It is during this time, when he is on his own in Penang, that he meets Endo-san who has rented a little island from Philip’s father which is a short distance from Istana. Endo-san begins to train Philip in Japanese martial arts and in Japanese philosophy causing a spiritual awakening in Philip that creates a bond between the two of them. The story, steeped in Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation and the harsh Japanese culture of duty, shows the torment that Philip endures when the Japanese invade the island a few years later causing him to question his own loyalties as he picks his way through a world of collaboration and resistance.
This is a bittersweet thriller that incorporates extreme violence with the supernatural and the spiritual. It’s a masterpiece of writing; a truly absorbing read with an insight into a character who is, initially, at odds with the world and feels estranged from his family, due to his mixed blood, and then is finally emotionally torn apart by divided loyalties. The novel is steeped with historical facts that help to bring alive the fictional side of the story and is an eye-opener to an Asian colonial life. Having said that, Eng can be criticised for the lack of individualistic traits of his characters, especially as their dialogue can be rather poetical, however the story is told from Philip’s point of view and is a reflective narrative so it could be said that perhaps that’s the way he chooses to remember it. Being the winner of the Man Booker prize 2007, this book will, deservedly, be on the shelves for many more years to come.
Alison OReilly 14/4/2012