The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw

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Winner of 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best First Book) and 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award  

The Harmony Silk Factory is set in Malaysia during the early 1940s – a period in which the Japanese began their invasion of the country. The book is divided into three parts, each telling the story of Johnny Lim, a textile merchant with a shady past, from a different perspective.

The book started off really well. The writing was fantastic and I was quickly drawn into the account of Johnny’s early life, as told by his son, Jasper.  Johnny was a fantastic character – I loved seeing the way he got out of various scrapes and rose to become one of the most important men in the area.

Some people are born with a streak of malice running through them. It poisons their blood for ever, swimming in their veins like a mysterious virus. It may lurk unnoticed for many years, surfacing only occasionally. Good times may temporarily suppress these instincts, and the person may even appear well intentioned and honest. Sooner or later, however, the cold hatred wins over. It is an incurable condition.

Unfortunately, the wonderful story telling came to an abrupt end as we reached part 2 (p120). The narrator switched to Snow (Johnny’s wife) and the prose took the form of a diary. The story of how Johnny and Snow came to marry was nowhere near as interesting as part 1 and the diary made the pace slower. Very little happened in this section and my mind wandered from the page at several points.

Part 3 was narrated by Englishman, Peter Wormwood, and repeated many of the events recounted earlier in the book, but from a slightly different perspective. I never warmed to Wormwood and found it a real chore to read most of this section. I recognise that the point is to show how people can view the same person in a different light, but it meant that I struggled to maintain an emotional connection throughout the narrative. I wish that the whole book had been written in the style of the first part and not tried to get too clever.

Overall there was a lot to enjoy in this book, but the frustrating final section left the book on a low note.

Have you read Tash Aw’s latest book, Map of the Invisible World?

Is is better than this one?


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15 Comments

  1. Sakura says:

    I really enjoyed this book although I do agree with you that the first part was probably the most interesting, especially the character of Johnny. Tash Aw will be at the literary festival in Sri Lanka I’m planning on going to see so looking forward to his talk (as long as I can actually fly out of the UK in January!)

    1. Jackie says:

      Sakura, I’m sure he’ll be a fascinating speaker. I really hope you make it out there and that you let us know what he had to say.

  2. raidergirl3 says:

    I read Map of the Invisible World. It was okay. In my review I write about the plot and the issues, not so much the style. That usually means I didn’t love it, but I got through it. I have neutral feelings about it – I remember things I liked, but I certainly didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it. Neutral. That oughta make you run out and pick it up:)

    1. Jackie says:

      raidergirl3, That sounds exactly like my thoughts on this one! Some good points, some bad, but overall just OK. I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get a copy :-)

  3. mee says:

    I met Tash Aw at Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago and I was impressed by how nice and how attentive he was. Been meaning to read The Harmony Silk Factory ever since (it’s on my shelf too), but I just have not. I guess the lukewarm reviews I’ve been reading don’t help..

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, If I ever get the chance I’ll ensure I go to see him talk. This book indicated his great knowledge of Malaysia and so I’m sure I’d find him very interesting.

      I hope you decide to pull this off the shelf sometime soon as I’d love to know your thoughts.

  4. matahari says:

    I somehow don’t prefer Tash Aw style. Coming from Malaysia and having so much passion for our history , I find his fact and feeling are not there!

    1. Jackie says:

      matahari, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time. I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t think this book was factually accurate. Can you recommend any books which have a more authentic portrayal of Malaysia?

  5. JoV says:

    I read Map of the Invisible World. The problem with Aw is that brilliance doesn’t sustain throughout the entire book. I read a few pages of Silk Factory in 2007, got distracted and put it down. Gave the book away, and now I bought another back and now it sits on my shelf. Just goes on to show how ambivalent I felt with the book.

    But I’ll sit through it one of these days. Thanks for the honest review Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoV, I agree. He is a very talented writer, but this book was a rollercoaster of brilliance and averageness. I hope that one day he’ll bring everything together and produce the masterpiece I’m sure he is capable of.

  6. Sandy says:

    Ack! Why do they do that? It seems like so many books start out strong and just fizzle.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, LOL! I’ve found a few of them recently :-)

  7. Amy says:

    This does sound like an interesting book – especially getting the different perspectives. Too bad it didn’t work better for you.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, It could lead to an interesting discussion about the way we all view people and their actions differently, but I’m afraid it was too slow for me.

  8. Kathleen says:

    This book interests me for its setting and so I think I could accept it’s flaws. I’ve not read the other one by this author so can’t comment on that.

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