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Breaking the Tongue

3.72  ·  Rating Details ·  282 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
This brilliant novel chronicles the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II. Central to the story is one Chinese family: Claude, raised to be more British than the British and ashamed of his own heritage; his father, Humphrey, whose Anglophilia blinds him to possible defeat and his wife's dalliances; and the redoubtable Grandma Siok, whose sage advice falls on de ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published March 17th 2005 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published March 1st 2004)
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Mindy McAdams
Jul 21, 2012 Mindy McAdams rated it liked it
Shelves: southeast-asia
When the Japanese invaded Malaya, they walked and bicycled south from Thailand, and the British (who had occupied the peninsula for quite some time) fled before them like rats deserting the proverbial sinking ship.

In Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese population watched the colonial overlords -- who had long banned the Chinese from their posh "whites-only" clubs and cricket fields -- first pour in from across the Johor Strait and later abandon the coveted port altogether, surrendering ignobly i
Sep 14, 2007 Lucía rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The rich historical background added a sense of discovery to this narrative of colonisation, since I am almost completely ignorant of Singapore's history. Extremely well-written for a first novel.
Oct 08, 2016 Jo rated it really liked it
I loved this book and will keep it for re-reading at some point in the future. Having recently read some non-fiction accounts of this period, it was very interesting to have it brought to life in fiction, and to experience the complex dynamics of the fall of Singapore through this small group of characters. It's the first historical novel I have read that is set in Singapore, and it was fascinating to visit places familiar to me, and to reconstruct life in locations I have seen in old photos fro ...more
Atikah Wahid
Jul 03, 2016 Atikah Wahid rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
It's pretty telling when an entire class of students, including the lecturer who assigned the text as a reading requirement in the first place, decides to drop this novel from the course because nobody wants to go through with it. To be fair, we had gone through a number of novels dealing with Malaysian and Singaporean literature during the early days of independence so we may have been slightly less forgiving.

There are so many issues in this book that reading it was actually infuriating! Befor
Mar 05, 2014 Katie rated it really liked it
Before the story begins, there is a page of this book that talks about the dangers of being deculturalized. Interestingly enough, the book seemed to argue the opposite to me. Each time a character named a race or culture (e.g., British, Japanese, Chinese, etc), it had such a negative connection to it that it almost seemed derogatory. This is quite powerful, as I can only remember one truly derogatory racial term in the entire book. As the characters focused so much on race and culture, all I cou ...more
Apr 20, 2012 Sheila rated it really liked it
I finished this one a few days ago, but had to give myself a few days to sift through everything, try to figure out how I could possibly explain this book in a way that would do it justice.

The Lims - father Humphrey, mother Cynthia, Grandma Soik, teenaged Claude, and little sister Lucy - are an English-speaking Chinese family living in British-ruled Singapore during WWII. None of them, save Grandma Soik, speaks or understands Chinese. They all enjoy the upper-class life Humphrey's bank job buys
May 13, 2010 Joey rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Singaporeans, people interested in Singapore
Breaking the Tongue may not be the easiest book on your to-read list but it is strangely absorbing. Author Vyvyane Loh weaves an emotional story of human failings and human strength right on this little island, Singapore.

This book is neither nationalistic nor biased in its story telling. Instead, it is a recount of a history we ought to have known, but perhaps never really did.

There is Claude Lim, a Chinese boy of an Anglophile family stuck between two cultures – an inability to fit with the Bri
Oct 03, 2013 Louisa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: recent-reads
Picked this one up at the local library after reading Lazy River last week and wanting to delve a bit further into the Singapore of the Japanese occupation. Found this 2006 Guardian review, written coincidentally by one of the translators of the Eileen Chang collection I'm reading at the moment:

Only a quarter of the way through, the only thing that is sustaining my interest in reading this novel is the anticipation of the bigger picture coming together and
Dec 16, 2008 Suzanna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is brilliantly written. I have been trying to think of how to describe her style; structurally, she in some ways reminds me of Amy Tan, and in some ways reminds me of T.S. Eliot. Regardless, throughout the book I was enthralled. I think readers who enjoy a novel strictly for entertainment would be pleased, if they like the subject matter. I also feel that those who enjoy delving deeper into a novel - picking apart symbolism, allusions, that sort of thing - will love this layer cake.

Aug 20, 2015 Alesa rated it really liked it
Claude is a young Chinese Singaporean, preparing to enter Oxford, when WWII comes along. His father is a total Anglophile -- so that Claude did not even learn Chinese growing up. This puts him in a perspective to give us a very unique view of Singapore, namely of the Chinese who identified with their colonizers, and could not believe that the British Empire could ever fall.

This novel is a deft work of art. It switches back and forth in time, in ways that are sometimes confusing. We get to know t
Angela Bong
Feb 04, 2016 Angela Bong rated it really liked it
Shelves: unfinished-books
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 06, 2008 Shuli rated it liked it
This story was a bit disorientating at times, but I think I progressively enjoyed the subtleties. Wrought with emotion and history. I feel like the development of the characters only scraped the topsoil, and would have wanted a more chiseled evolution.

The story is set in the birth of Singapore -- from English hands to Japanese hands. Chinese, Malay, and Indian inhabitants of the island are at the mercy of the war that ensues.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book, and what was probably Vyvyan
Sara Westhead
Jul 18, 2014 Sara Westhead rated it liked it
The book can be a little confusing in the beginning, as you bounce between 'past' and 'present' without anyone telling you that is what is happening. It really is a wonderful story about life in Singapore under British rule and the invasion by the Japanese during WW2. While life as a colony was peaceful, Loh does not mince her words in the truth of how poorly the British treated locals - basically taking over someone else's country and treating them as second- and third-class citizens. She highl ...more
Jun 02, 2008 Wendy rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, wwii, asia, 2008
I would have enjoyed this book more if the narrative had been structured differently, but in spite of this, I did like the story. I did not know much about the fall of Singapore during WWII, and the little I did know was from a European perspective. It was interesting to learn about it from the perspective of a Chinese boy who was experiencing life under British Colonialism (as a second class citizen), and then the battle and ultimate fall of Singapore. He want from a life of comfort and relativ ...more
Jun 27, 2016 Vhicy rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. Not to say it isn't problematic - the mat salleh, lost-in-translation boy and streetwise local girl combo has been done before, and for a 'multicultural' book, we mostly see things from the Malayan Chinese perspective, and some allegories hammer the reader on the head one too many times, but I found myself reading and rereading it. Even after it was taken off my course reading list (there wasn't enough time for the class to cover it) I still found it compelling enough ...more
This is an amazing work of historical fiction from the pen of Vyvyane Loh. She has created believable characters, particularly the young hero Claude Lim, and put them in an historical setting that is brought alive in this intelligent novel. We see the Chinese family trying to emulate their British colonial masters and watch as their society crumbles in the face of the Japanese invasion of December, 1942. But mostly this is Claude's story as he learns from his Grandmother Siok, befriends the Engl ...more
Aug 07, 2016 Bob rated it really liked it
Shelves: asia
Many aspects of this novel are story-killers for me (most characters are types who do not really develop in the course of the story, the jumps in time and place provide too much foreshadowing and spoil the suspense, and the plays on words sometimes intrude), but the situations are presented with so much detail and intensity that you feel as though you had lived through the fall of Singapore, experienced the subtly vicious hurts of colonial racism, and had had to invent or discover a new ethnici ...more
Jul 18, 2011 Histteach24 rated it liked it
I was excited to read a book based on Singapore during WWII-a rare find. But it was long, draggy, too many characters with little extensive character development until the end. You were left lost at times. The ending was powerful and saved the book. Ended up being the only reason it was a good read. The book did do a beautiful job showing the effects of imperialism on culture ad how we see the hierarchy of the human race. It also did a wonderful job describing how war effects civilians and the r ...more
Jan 03, 2009 Bethany rated it it was amazing
Taught with V for Vendetta, The Gate to Women's Country, Utopia, and Kite Runner -- utopian/dystopian visions.

Hard to get into, but generally students came around and understood. Could do more with themes of female characters, language, silence.

Would teach this class again. Would also teach with Asian-themed lit, post-colonial lit, coming of age stories.
Sep 16, 2007 Mei rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
What I appreciated most from this book was the author's skill to juxtapose the diverse and complicated culture of Singapore and it's people. The jumps in time line were a bit confusing at first but made more sense as you continued in the book. You will need to know how to read Chinese in order to get the full meaning of the end. I would recommend this book to those interested in stories not told from a traditional European point of view.
Oct 24, 2015 Frank rated it really liked it
Shelves: war, literature
Read this several years ago.

This brilliant novel chronicles the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II. Central to the story is one Chinese family: Claude, raised to be more British than the British and ashamed of his own heritage; his father, Humphrey, whose Anglophilia blinds him to possible defeat and his wife's dalliances; and the redoubtable Grandma Siok, whose sage advice falls on deaf ears.
Eric Smith
Oct 29, 2012 Eric Smith rated it really liked it
Shelves: literature, fiction
I just reread ""Breaking the Tongue"" and I have increased my rating to five stars from 4 1/2. I might even read it a third time! I highly recommend this novel. I had the pleasure of meeting the author, Vyvyane Loh and bringing her to Philadelphia to lecture. She was amazing, her struggles to get the book written and published were epic. Talking to her about that process and about the book's content was just a total pleasure.
Mar 26, 2008 umang rated it liked it
The setting and historical background are interesting. I did not know much about this transition. It is portrayed vividly and piques one's curiosity. The characters seemed exaggerated to me, but my book group didn't think so. I am not sure The Body scenes really add much- perhaps just the obligatory brutality required in books dealing with this era.
Dec 02, 2011 Cheryl rated it really liked it
Well written, although the fragmented style was a little hard to follow, at times. Interesting insight into the colonialism of Singapore and its relationship with England, China, and Japan in the 1940's. It is a bit of a difficult read because of some graphic description of torture by the Japanese as they occupy Singapore.
Sep 19, 2007 Betsey rated it it was amazing
woah. this book blew me away. the writing style and the era remind me of Wong Kar Wai's 2046. It was more than just wistful though, it was heartbreaking in place and horrifying in others. highly recommended.
Nanna Tirsted
Aug 15, 2014 Nanna Tirsted rated it really liked it
After a slow beginning I grew to love it.

The book starts out a bit flat but it really takes off when the war comes crashing down on the family and the main character Claude steps to the plate and becomes a person.
Nov 20, 2008 Meg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was an emotionally moving book for me. History, colonialism, and cultural memory are a few of the themes dealt with. Enlightening since I didn't know much about this era, or this specific conflict.
Gill Schell
Feb 06, 2016 Gill Schell rated it really liked it
Singapore during the Second World War. Difficult to get into at the beginning, storyline hard to follow at first but definitely worth persevering. Through the main characters, we are given a great picture of the various races with their lives, culture, hopes and aspirations. Very moving.
Sarah Jane
May 27, 2014 Sarah Jane rated it really liked it
Now I want to learn more about the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Asian history, modern and ancient, is not something we covered in any World History class I've ever taken.
Aug 05, 2008 Alan rated it really liked it
This was a great, but very brutal, exploration on the effects of, and how one belongs to a particular culture. Takes place during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during the Second World War.
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Vyvyane Loh was born in Ipoh, Malaysia and moved to Singapore with her family when she was five. Besides her rigourous schooling in Singapore, she studied ballet (Royal Academy of Dance syllabus and exams) , the piano (Royal Academy of Music), and Speech/Drama (Trinity College). She spent a brief period in Canterbury, Kent, before starting college at Boston University where she double-majored in B ...more
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