Philip Hutton feels disconnected from his family. His Chinese mother was his British father’s second wife and his brothers and sister were all offspring from his father’s first wife, also British. They live in Malaya in the period leading up to the Second World. Noel Hutton, twice widowed, is the head of a trading company started int he glory days of the British Empire. But these are turbulent times and war is on the horizon.
Tan Twang Eng’s novel shows the search for identity of a young man who has grown up semi-detached from the White British and the Chinese in Malaya. When he meets Endo, a Japanese national new to the island of Penang, Philip is drawn to him and a teacher pupil relationship begins which teaches Philip not just a martial art but a way of being comfortable with himself.
Yet his loyalty to his Japanese friend brings problems when the war comes to Penang and the Japanese occupy the island. Once again, Philip finds himself adrift from the majority of the community. The consequences of warfare on the rest of his family and his friends make for both a thrilling and heart-wrenching book. Since the book is narrated by a Philip at the end of his life, it is no secret to write that he survives the war. Readers will decide for themselves whether this was a fate worse than death; just as they will decide whether the young man caught between worlds is a hero or a collaborator.
This is a novel that stays with you long after you have finished. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?