PERSONAL: Born in Taipei, Taiwan; immigrated to Malaysia; moved to England.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Penguin Group, c/o Riverhead Books Publicity, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
The Harmony Silk Factory (historical novel), Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Although he moved to England during his teenage years, Tash Aw was raised in Malaysia, where he has set his debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory. Most of the novel takes place in the turbulent 1930s and 1940s and centers on expatriate Chinese businessman Johnny Lim, the owner of the factory. The book contains three very divergent views of this one man, told from the perspectives of his estranged son, through the pages of his wife's 1941 diary, and via the recollections of an old friend, a flamboyant Englishman named Peter Wormwood. "The chief benefit of this structural trick is to make palpable the limitations of each character's perspective, and that's no mean feat," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
The first section of The Harmony Silk Factory focuses on Lim's son, Jasper, whose bitter hatred for his father makes him an unreliable narrator. In his anger, he even interprets his father squashing a mosquito, which had bitten Jasper, as an act of typical cruelty. Of course, there are real crimes, at least in Jasper's mind. Lim supposedly set a fire to injure his own mentor, and then took over this man's fake business, a front for communist guerrillas resisting Malaysia's Japanese occupation. Later, he betrays these same guerrillas to the Japanese, who slaughter them. Through the eyes of Jasper, Lim emerges as a murderous monster, a traitor, and a thoroughly corrupt drug kingpin.
"You wouldn't expect a character to come back from an assassination like that. But Aw's purpose … is to spend the rest of the book devising a complex, contradictory case for the rehabilitation of Johnny Lim," remarked Manchester Guardian contributor Alfred Hickling in describing the novel's concluding sections. For his aristocratic wife, Snow, who contemplates leaving him in the pages of her journal, Lim is a powerful but ambivalent figure, so in awe of her that he can hardly bring himself to touch her. Snow's diary recounts a bizarre honeymoon in which the couple are accompanied by Wormwood and the vicious Japanese administrator, Kunichika, on a dangerous voyage to a tropical island. Here, Lim seems more the passive and hapless husband of a beautiful woman who is herself increasingly drawn to the cruel Japanese police chief.
The final section of The Harmony Silk Factory is told from the perspective of Wormwood, who describes his own view of this honeymoon trip and his friendship with Lim. For Wormwood, Lim is oddly innocent and vulnerable, as much a victim as a criminal. As London Times contributor Neel Mukherjee concluded, "Where Aw emerges as uncontested winner is in the subtle modulations of the three narratorial voices. From the clunky unreliability of Jasper, through the pellucid prose of Snow's journal to the intelligent, slightly camp, aesthetic eloquence of Wormwood, Aw orchestrates a graceful ballet of dissonances and congruences, of echoes and discords."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Denver Post, March 27, 2005, Carlo Wolff, "WWII in Malaysia: Through a Lens Vaguely."
Guardian (Manchester, England), March 26, 2005, Alfred Hickling, "Bound in Tropes of Silk."
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2005, review of The Harmony Silk Factory, p. 3.
Library Journal, February 15, 2005, Shirley N. Quan, review of The Harmony Silk Factory, p. 113.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2005, review of The Harmony Silk Factory, p. 52.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2005, Alan Cheuse, "A Poor Malaysian Boy Does Well, and Then Falls Far," p. F3.
Times (London, England), February 26, 2005, Neel Mukherjee, review of The Harmony Silk Factory.