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The Harmony Silk Factory

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Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, and Anthony Burgess have shaped our perceptions of Malaysia. In Tash Aw, we now have an authentic Malaysian voice that remaps this literary landscape.

The Harmony Silk Factory traces the story of textile merchant Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant living in British Malaya in the first half of the twentieth century. Johnny's factory is the most impressive structure in the region, and to the inhabitants of the Kinta Valley Johnny is a hero—a Communist who fought the Japanese when they invaded, ready to sacrifice his life for the welfare of his people. But to his son, Jasper, Johnny is a crook and a collaborator who betrayed the very people he pretended to serve, and the Harmony Silk Factory is merely a front for his father's illegal businesses. This debut novel from Tash Aw gives us an exquisitely written look into another culture at a moment of crisis.

The Harmony Silk Factory won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award and also made it to the 2005 Man Booker longlist.

416 pages, Paperback

First published March 31, 2005

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About the author

Tash Aw

27 books355 followers
Born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents, Tash Aw grew up in Kuala Lumpur before moving to England in his teens. He studied law at the University of Cambridge and University of Warwick, then moved to London to write. After graduating he worked at a number of jobs, including as a lawyer for four years whilst writing his debut novel, which he completed during the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. Based on royalties as well as prizes, Aw is the most successful Malaysian writer of recent years. Following the announcement of the Booker longlist, the Whitbread Award and his Commonwealth Writers' Prize, he became a celebrity in Malaysia and Singapore, and is now one of the most respected literary figures in Southeast Asia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 307 reviews
Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews502 followers
July 16, 2016
Oh god, this is the third crap book in a row. Life's too bloody short for this!!!!!!!!!

I so wanted to like this. It's not often that a South-East Asian writer (Tash Aw is of Malaysian origin) gets international recognition. But this is utter crap.

To be honest, I didn't finish it. I gave up at around this point: [our protagonist, Johnny, is having a conversation with a communist in British Malaya]
'What I think,' Gun said, as he prised the parang [a kind of knife used in warfare] from the soil and wiped it clean with his fingers, 'is that anybody who can cut up and kill an English big shot, well, that person might be very useful to us.'

'Will I fight for the liberation of man's soul from the chains of bourgeoisie?' Johnny said.

Gun stared at him blankly.
Now, even discounting the fact that this conversation could only have taken place in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, and I'm pretty sure you can't say "bourgeoisie" in Hokkien (at least not the kind of Hokkien that a poor labourer would speak), this is utter crap. Why? After all, doesn't Aw provide some kind of convenient explanation for this a few paragraphs earlier?
Johnny himself had not yet experienced life as a true communist. Up to that point he had, of course, worked in many places run by people with communist leanings, but he had never yet been approached to do anything. Someone had given him a leaflet once. The words seemed cold on the thin paper, and did not arouse in him any feelings of duty. He tried reading some of the books on Tiger's shelves. He reached, first of all, for Karl Marx, though he did not know why. Perhaps he had heard that name before, or perhaps the simple, strong sound of the words as he read them to himself compelled him to take it into his room. Das. Ka-pi-tal. He said it several times in the privacy of his room. His lips felt strange when they spoke, and he felt curiously exhilarated. But he had not understood everything in the book. Even the Chinese version was beyond his comprehension. What the words said was plain enough, but the meaning behind them remained hidden from him. He grew to prefer the English version. Every night he would look at the book, reading a few lines in his poor English, hoping he would suddenly find a trapdoor into that vast world he knew lay beyond the page. Somehow it made him feel more important, more grown-up, as if he was part of a bigger place.
So just how does Das Kapital begin? These are the first two paragraphs (you can read the whole thing here):
The wealth of societies in which a capitalistic mode of production prevails, appears as a ‘gigantic collection of commodities’ and the singular commodity appears as the elementary form of wealth. Our investigation begins accordingly with the analysis of the commodity.

The commodity is first an external object, a thing which satisfies through its qualities human needs of one kind or another. The nature of these needs is irrelevant, e.g., whether their origin is in the stomach or in the fancy. We are also not concerned here with the manner in which the entity satisfies human need; whether in an immediate way as food – that is, as object of enjoyment – or by a detour as means of production.
I can hardly see how these words could have anything other than a thoroughly soporific effect on a young, uneducated manual labourer whose mother tongue is not English. I can hardly see how these words could induce Johnny to feel "more important". The Communist Manifesto possibly, but Das Kapital? An economic text? My, Johnny must be a special kind of man. What does Aw tell us about his childhood? He establishes very early on that Johnny was a poor, rural child who "helped in the manual labour in which [his] parents were engaged". And his educational opportunities?
Schools do not exist in these rural areas. I tell a lie. There are a few schools, but they are reserved for the children of royalty and rich people like civil servants. These were founded by the British… Only the sons of very rich Chinese can go there… There the pupils are taught to speak English, proper, I mean… So imagine a child like Johnny, growing up on the edge of a village on the fringes of a rubber plantation (say), tapping rubber and trapping animals for few cents' pocket money.
Indeed, imagine a child like Johnny: speaks Hokkien, some pidgin Malay probably, some pidgin English at best, illiterate. Imagine the adult, after a peripatetic life wandering around the Malayan countryside since 13 doing manual labour and odd-jobs for a few cents. Imagine that adult picking up Volume 1 of Das Kapital, weighing in at close to 1,000 pages and actually reading it. Not just reading it, word by laborious word, but being interested by it. Can you do it? I can't. BECAUSE IT'S UTTER BULLSHIT THAT'S WHY!!!!!!! You would not only need to be able to read, you would need to have developed a capacity for abstract reasoning which our protagonist clearly never had any need for. And for that protagonist to spew a statement like, "Will I fight for the liberation of man's soul from the chains of bourgeoisie?" Just who are you trying to kid, Aw? Yes, so I gave up at that point. It just didn't seem to be worth the trouble to continue.

Here's another example of the novel's internal incoherence. This is how Johnny is first introduced to us by his son after he made his wealth:
Johnny Lim: short, squat, uncommunicative, a hopeless bald loner with poor social skills.
This loner with poor social skills is described as having this kind of early career start:
It turned out [Johnny] was a natural salesman with an easy style all his own. Like Tiger, Johnny was never loud nor overly persuasive. He pushed hard yet never too far. He cajoled but rarely flattered… He had a sense for what each customer wanted, and he always made a sale.
Make up your bloody mind, Aw! Poor social skills? Or consummate saleman?

What I want to know is, who are these readers who find this poorly fabricated excuse of a novel even believable? Good lord, I have some swamp land I'm sure they'd love to buy.
Profile Image for BrokenTune.
750 reviews202 followers
February 21, 2017
Memories are things to be buried. They die, just as people do, and with their passing, all traces of the life they once touched are erased, for ever and completely.

Despite my initial misgivings about the book and despite the fact that the book suffered from the pressures of "having to read it" for a book group, The Harmony Silk Factory turned out to be a fairly interesting read.

Mostly set in Malaysia just before the Japanese invasion, Aw created a story that is set on the verges of different things: the demise of colonial rule in Malaya, the fledgling rise of communism, the impending Japanese occupation. Nothing is set. Neither the circumstances of the story, nor the characters.
The story is that of a man, Johnny Lim, yet, none of the story is told by Lim himself. We have three narrators, his son, his wife, his (supposedly) best friend, all of whom give their memory of Johnny Lim, and not one of whom is a reliable narrator.

So, having marvelled at the book all the way through it, I am no longer sure that anything described in the book truly happened. Or at least not in the way, it appears.
For example, there is a drowning that is not a drowning, a father who is not a father, an act of treason, that may not have been one.

What remains, however, is that Johnny Lim's story mostly seems to be a story of betrayal. It's either people themselves who commit this betrayal or it is their memory.
Not bad for a book that I did not think I would enjoy.

Where the book falls down, tho, is in that the abundant descriptions drag on and that it jumps so much between characters and time periods that it is confusing to follow.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,717 reviews2,311 followers
May 14, 2020
"People who enter our worlds from the outside are always more fascinating than the ones close to us, but in the end we always see sense."


#ReadTheWorld21 📍Malaysia

The setting: British Malaya - modern Malaysia - months before Japanese occupation in WWII. Later scenes in modern day Malaysia.

The characters: a Malaysian of Chinese descent, Johnny Lim; his wife, Snow; their son Jasper; his friend, expatriate Brit, Peter; secondary cast of in-laws, business partners, and a Japanese "professor".

Aw's debut novel received high marks, award nominations, and all sorts of accolades back in the mid-2000s. After reading, I can see why. The composition is fantastic, as is his engaging writing style.

Three people tell stories about a singular man and their relationship to him over time. But through these stories, where is the thread of truth? The many faces of a person through time: Father, husband, friend, employer, confidant, informant.

Parts 2 and 3 are where this story truly takes shape, and sheds some light on Part 1. I so enjoy when a story takes on multiple viewpoints and re-lives certain scenes again through different eyes and context. Keen observations and puzzle-like precision in storytelling. That happens several times here and Aw writes it well.

My second piece by Tash Aw - read his THE FACE: Strangers on a Pier essay years ago. It was great to get back to his work with this earlier novel!
6 reviews4 followers
November 16, 2017
The Harmony Silk Factory is a very good book. It is a very light book as well, supple and nuanced, elegantly concealing and yielding its gems in the same movement. It is not, however, a simple book, though it may appear as such to the simple reader who is unable to comprehend unreliable narration, or distinguish between a narratorial voice and the author function.

Much of Aw's concerns here revolve around the act of narrativizing itself, how history is a palimpsest, how perception and personal bias skew our reconstruction of the past. To that extent, a huge portion of the book's emotional power flows out of the subtle misalignment and dislocation of perspective and memory. The sadness of the reader is the sadness of solipsism, of seeing minds hopelessly adrift and disconnected from each other, only briefly touching every now and then upon the current.

This emotion is heightened by Aw's Brechtian tendency to withhold catharsis, deliberately leaving the threads of this text frayed. For all of its ambiguity, however, I would hardly call this novel a condescending one, because it often gives the attentive reader the keys by which it may be decoded. Tash's tightly-written prose features repeated images of machinery, architecture and textiles, all of which may be seen as fractals and symbols for the novel's own design. Despite all I wrote in the previous paragraph, for instance, the machinery of this novel is hardly a visible one, and the effects produced by its workings appear effortless and well-lubricated. Every now and then the author offers a visible indicator of his intentions, like when he takes events explored in great detail in prior sections and repositions them as buried but conspicuous Flaubertian detail in later passages, or when a famous Modernist opening is subversively quoted to illuminate deftly-sketched parallels in character and plot.

These moments are rare flashes of complexity in the text, serving to remind us that this novel is one that actively engages in intertextual dialogue with its forebears viz. Hemingway and Conrad. Nonetheless, they are prominent precisely for their rarity; Aw is otherwise economical almost to the point of frailty, weaving together different portions of the plot in the confidence that sinuous, delicate connections will suffice. For all of its complicated architecture, the building which ultimately emerges is organic in appearance, graceful and fluent, not phallic and brutalist. The text is a tower of silk, standing despite itself, a miracle by existence.

Be patient with it. Offer up a long obedience to Aw. Let the work envelop you, and you will receive its beauty.
Profile Image for Miriiam Isa.
Author 1 book5 followers
February 17, 2012
The story harkens one to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As the narrative on Johnny Lim, the owner of The Harmony Silk Factory evolves from three angles – Jasper(his purported son), Snow(his wife who died after giving birth to Jasper) and Peter(English expat adrift in Malaya and Johnny’s close friend) – our understanding of his underlying character becomes more muddied.

I love it that Aw teases us to reflect on who the real Johnny Lim is.

A liar and a cheat according to Jasper who starts off the story. But we can’t take his opinion seriously, despite his claim at the outset his tale will be clear and complete, ‘as far as it is possible.’ We know Jasper’s opinions are tainted because he resents Johnny.

Snow claims Johnny is cold to her. She’s torn between loving Johnny and being attracted to Mamoru Kunichika who rules over Kampar during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Hers too is a biased account as we rely so much on what’s in her diary, especially during a long jaunt to the Seven Maiden Islands. What’s left unwritten is never known, and therefore we really have to divine the rest of the truths surrounding Snow’s relationship with Johnny and to a certain extent, Kunichika.

The last tale is by Peter. His account lends the most insights connecting the events in the earlier narratives. Unfortunately, Peter tends to be theatrical - with the words he uses, songs he sings, outfits he wears and of course, insinuations on Snow, Johnny and other people around him. On piecing things together at the end of the story, we should be able to conclude some things don’t jibe. Peter for instance describes himself as someone who’s still strong even though he’s in an old folks’ home. In contrast, Jasper describes him as an almost incoherent old guy consigned to a wheelchair at Johnny Lim’s funeral. Jasper doesn’t take after Johnny. He has the coloring of his mother, and perhaps Kunichika too as his mother alludes. And to confuse matters even more, Peter builds up this incredible tale he has knocked up Snow. Not much is known whether the marriage between Johnny and Snow is really consummated. However the tender account on how Johnny treated Jasper at a train station leaves little doubt on the link between the two.

Still, at the crux of the story, nothing is absolutely certain of the real Johnny Lim. He’s deceased and as repeated often times by the narrators – ‘Death erases all traces of the life that once existed, completely and forever.’ We’ll just have to draw our own conclusion from the silken tangles of the differing accounts.

This is a much stronger and more intriguing story than Aw's sophomore novel- Map of the Invisible World. Love it!!!
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,211 followers
September 1, 2019
Quietly impressive and atmospheric debut novel set in British Malaya at the outset of WW2, which won the Whitbread (now Costa) first novel prize in 2005.

The concept of a story narrated by three voices with different perspectives has been done before - but Tash Aw handles it well, particularly the distinctive nature of the voices and their particular slant on the tale, and while there is some gradual revelation of information in the latter pieces, these aren't thriller style twists but rather alternative interpretations of characters and actions which make the picture more cloudy rather than clearer.

And again a novel about a central character, here Johnny Lim, narrated by the first person impression of other characters has been done before, but the author again controls this very nicely. I loved this comment in the author's afterword about what the book tells us about Johnny and the three narrators:

All three of them project their own insecurities and aspirations on Johnny without ever really making an effort to come close to him. That's why we never know him - he's just a constrict of various neuroses.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Aziff.
Author 2 books28 followers
October 12, 2013
I have mixed feelings about The Harmony Silk Factory. As I steadily progressed through the book, it reminded me of The Historian in terms of narrative. Harmony Silk Factory tells the tale of a mysterious Chinese Communist by the name of Johnny in a colonial Malaya through the eyes of three perspectives.

I enjoyed T. Aw's detail and storytelling, it was well-written. And given the narrative style he took on, he sheds light on the tale of Johnny in different vignettes, allowing us to look at him in through different eyes. Despite this though, at the end of the novel, I felt like I didn't know as much about Johnny as much as I would have liked to.

That, perhaps, was T. Aw's intention. We could only analyze and assess of a person and a situation with what we know and what's given to us but at the end of it all - we don't know as much as we'd like to. It also sheds light on human memory and perspective. That - is perhaps the gem of T. Aw's narrative.

Now, I understood this novel to be a historical fiction but in many parts of the book, I felt it to be isolated from the setting. The setting of a colonial Malaya was only painted in vignettes (and extensive knowledge of the local flora). The politics of the colonial British and invading Japanese was meant to backdrop the premise but this serves more of a invisible canvas as opposed to the driving of the plot. Plenty of the book takes place out of this setting. This, of course, is a small gripe on my part but one that nagged me throughout.

While I cannot strongly recommend this book to avid readers who want to glean more on colonial Malaya (there are better books, I'm certain), Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory is a book you'd read to kill time. It's not spectacular but hey, it isn't unreadable.
Profile Image for Karel.
279 reviews63 followers
August 10, 2012
I bought this book a long time ago, but was put off by the start of Peter's account and have just finished re-reading it the other day. The book is divided into three segments - narrated by three different narrators whose story circles around one man, Johnny Lim. Narrated by his son, wife and good friend, the novel is about their stories as much as his. At the end of the novel, Johnny remains as much a mystery as he was at the beginning. Is he a cold and withdrawn father, traitor, communist and schemer? Is he simply like an oyster - hardened on the outside but child-like and fearful on the inside?

The main feeling I get from this novel is that it's mysterious. The story explains as many things as it doesn't. It's mysterious in the way family secrets are mysterious - you know the story from this aunt, and that uncle, but ultimately no one knows the REAL story, and likely never will. This feeling is strong in every aspect of the novel - but most of all from the main character, Johnny.

Add to that a vivid and gripping atmosphere (Although I'm probably biased, since I'm Malaysian and I can practically smell the wet mud and jungles described in the book) and you've got a very good book in your hands.

The only downside to the book, for me, is Peter's account of the story. I found bits of his botany ranting rather tiresome - not unlike listening to an old man. Although his part ultimately delivers, it lacks the smooth narrations of the first two parts, fizzling instead of ending with a bang. Nonetheless, The Harmony Silk Factory is a book that's well above mediocre.
Profile Image for Babak Fakhamzadeh.
446 reviews33 followers
October 9, 2012
Though Aw won the Whitbread First Novel Award for this book in 2005, I wasn't overly impressed. Interesting for its references to Malay culture and society, I thought the novel very constructed. The central character of the book, Johnny Lim, is discussed by his son, his wife and an old friend, all highlighting very different aspects of the man and all seeing him in very different lights.
Although the concept is intriguing and the conclusion valid, that the way you see the people around you depends on what information you have at your disposal, too often did parts of the individual stories feel unreal. For example, the middle part of the book, excerpts from the diary of Johnny Lim's wife, leave too many questions which the wife herself would most likely feel unhappy left unanswered. Similarly, too many details in the story told by Johnny Lim's son can only clearly be nothing but conjecture, though he claims the story to be true, using history's hindsight as well as supposed uncovered sources he's found over the years. However, him qualifying aspects of scenes to which no one but dead men were part of, takes away from the credibility of his story and therefore from the quality of the book.
Profile Image for Theresa.
174 reviews40 followers
May 3, 2013
....I spent most of the book thinking 75% of the characters were gay. I'm still not entirely sure if they were/weren't.

I see that as a bonus and it's probably one of the reasons I enjoyed this.
Profile Image for Natasa.
1,194 reviews
April 3, 2019
This is an interesting and ambitious novel that gives a good sense of the time and place, Malaysia just before World War II and the Japanese invasion, but it did not entirely come together for me.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,128 reviews1,202 followers
April 7, 2011
The Harmony Silk Factory is a narrative dealing primarily with Malaysia prior to the Second World War (also briefly discussing the situation during and after the war), as narrated by three distinct characters. The first section, narrated by Jasper, the son of the infamous Johnny Lim (possibly the protagonist, although we never hear from him directly), is interesting but not riveting. Jasper is the classic unreliable narrator, hating his father so much that we know he can't be objective. Second comes Snow, Jasper's mother and Johnny's wife, and here the narrative is bogged down in the minutiae of a jungle excursion. I was reminded forcefully of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, both by the setting and the painfully slow pacing, although I'm not convinced that Tash Aw is quite so profound. Finally comes Peter, Johnny's English friend; his section is the dullest, alternating between a retelling from his perspective of the same excursion and more about garden planning than I ever wanted to know--interspersed with a few crucial insights into previous events.

This isn't a bad story, although I found most of the characters unlikeable--Jasper's primary characteristics are arrogance and hatred of his father; Snow's, passivity; and Peter's, pretentiousness and self-absorption, while Johnny is such an enigma that we barely get to know him at all. However, the pacing quite slow, and gets slower as it progresses. The author's use of multiple narrators who tell very different truths is a too-infrequently-used technique and he pulls it off well, which I suppose accounts for all the positive professional reviews. I give it three stars because neither the story nor the characters ever appealed to me; this was the only book available to me on a long flight, and otherwise I probably never would have finished it.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a special interest in Malaysia or who enjoys long, leisurely-paced character studies, but the rest would be better off giving this one a pass.
Profile Image for Wei Ming.
8 reviews2 followers
May 5, 2013
A caveat: as a British Chinese Malay, I can't read any of Tash Aw's books objectively, I just can't. It's impossible to be completely so, of course, there will always be preconceived expectations going into a book, but he's writing about a country I have such a strong emotional tie to (HIS LATEST BOOK FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE, I'M GONNA DIE). Short short short review: unreliable narrators! Overlapping Rashomon perspectives! The impact of British colonialism and Japanese invasion/occupation! Very briefly, ghosts and magical landscapes! Communists, collaboration! Alsooooooo, loving someone by pure worship alone (THE WORST, really no spoilers there) and the impossibility of escaping your past, hello literary kryptonite. Yes, I loved it. Fantastic writing, took me right back to Malaysia and educated me a little on some of its history. READ IT READ IT READ IT, excuse me while I go hunt for Five Star Billionaire.
Profile Image for Emily.
513 reviews47 followers
October 24, 2020
Το βιβλίο κυκλοφόρησε το 2005, ήταν το πρώτο βιβλίο του Μαλαισιανού συγγραφέα Tash Aw και πήρε το βραβείο Whitbread, το οποίο μετονομάστηκε σε Costa.
Διαδραματίζεται στη Βρετανική Μαλαισία πριν το Β' Παγκόσμιο Πόλεμο, με αναφορές στο σήμερα.
Το Μεταξουργείο η Αρμονία είναι ένας χώρος διασκέδασης της εποχής, ιδιοκτήτης του οποίου είναι ο Τζόνυ Λιμ. Αμφιλεγόμενη προσωπικότητα, σκιαγραφείται από τρεις διαφορετικούς αφηγητές : το γιο του Τζάσπερ, ο οποίος φαίνεται να τον μισεί και να τον σιχαίνεται, τη γυναίκα του Σνόου, η οποία τρέφει μάλλον αδιάφορα συναισθήματα για το πρόσωπο του και τον καλ��τερο του φίλο, έναν Βρετανό της διασποράς.
Οι αφηγήσεις και των τριών, δεν καταφέρνυν να δώσουν μία ολοκληρωμένη και σαφή εικόνα του Λιμ στον αναγνώστη, ο οποίος μένει με την απορία μέχρι το τέλος. Ποιος ήταν πραγματικά ο Τζόνυ Λιμ;; Μυστήριο ...
Το σίγουρο είναι πως πρόκειται για μια ιστορία προδοσίας.
Αφηγηματικά επαρκής ο συγγραφέας, δεν καταφέρνει στο τέλος να γοητεύσει τον αναγνώστη.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
289 reviews4 followers
August 23, 2016
The story of Johnny Lim, a Malaysian who survived and profited socially and financially through World War II, is told from three perspectives: his son's, his wife's, and that of a British friend. None of the three is reliable for different reason, but each is interesting. Jasper, Johnny's son, is the most certain that he has the true story -- but his tale is filled with folklore that has grown up around his father and disappointments at never knowing his mother who died when he was born and a father who professed allegiance to communism while making money as a smuggler. The slight diary of Snow covers a short episode and is hopelessly naive. The longest and most entertaining tells us more than we want to know about its author, Peter, a well-educated, seemingly bisexual "queen", but it inexplicably clouds still further our understanding of who Jasper's father is. Reading Snow's diary was like watching Antonioni's "L'avventura"; Peter's character was straight out of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."
Profile Image for Calzean.
2,599 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2016
A love story in pre WWII Malaysia - written by a Malaysian.

The main character is Johnny Lim, a merchant, communist and criminal. He is seen through the narratives of his son, his wife and an Englishman. Each narrator sees Johnny differently and his life is outlined, including is role as a collaborator with the Japanese.

The relationship between his wife and the Englishman, a forbidden love, and the outcome is the crux of the novel.

Expats are seen for what they were - gin swilling, profiteers with little interest in the locals.
Profile Image for Hilary G.
326 reviews12 followers
December 10, 2012
Ex Bookworm group review:

Sitting down to write this review, I am reminded of the small piece of silk that Johnny gave to Peter the first time they met. It was iridescent and shot through with so many colours that every time it moved its appearance changed. That is as good a description of The Harmony Silk Factory as any I could think up.

Like several of our book choices, the story is told from multiple viewpoints, giving me another chance to mention Wilkie Collins, who did it first. This must be a bit of a fashion in the modern novel and we’d probably be getting tired of it, but Tash Aw handles it so deftly, he is well named, it is Aw-some. His use of it is like a conjuring trick, an optical illusion, a hologram, a crystal pyramid. You aren’t quite sure what you have seen and every time you look, your perception alters. As you read on, you realise that the beginning presages the end, the end informs the beginning and the middle lends mystery to them both. Finally, you are not sure what you have seen and thinking about it provides questions not answers.

The multiple viewpoints are not just of different people, but in different media as well. Jasper's search is research, family history. He looks at documents and pieces together a hypothesis. Of course, instead of wondering what his father was like, he should be wondering who his father was, but by some sleight of hand, Johnny and Peter merge into one (as Mamoru and Snow do in Peter’s dream) as Jasper describes his father (meaning Johnny) as having an incurable condition – a streak of malice running through him, poisoning his blood for ever – which reflects both Peter’s name of Wormwood and his self-perception and failure to “atone”. We are also told that Jasper is scared of discovering a father he has never known. Snow’s viewpoint is recorded by means of a diary, a sort of “live” commentary though, of course, we read it long after the event, when the events are history. Peter’s is a memoir, written long after the events he describes. Which medium reveals the truth? The answer, of course, is none of them, which leads to the question of what is truth? Can documentary evidence be relied upon? Isn’t everything that is written coloured by the viewpoint of the writer, and then again by the viewpoint of the reader? What does this say about history? Is it truly possible to know anyone or anything? As someone who loves research, these were fascinating questions.

There were several discussions in the book about memory and in a discussion between Snow and Peter, they seem to have reached the conclusion that death erases everything of the life that has been. Not the physical life, that can be captured in photographs, but feelings, emotions. Elsewhere in the book, other observations seem to deny this, echoing the structure of the book itself. Peter thinks that ruins resonate with the lives of the people that once lived there. Mamoru tells Snow that life is a palimpsest (a word I had to look up) and though in the apparent context he was saying you could erase the past and start over again, from another point of view, the reuse of the parchment means the old writing is still there and is probably imperfectly erased.

This ties in with another theme, that of atonement (another Wrinkly favourite theme). Is it possible to start over again? There are many references in the book to the therapeutic power of gardens. Tiger Tan tells Johnny that none of the bad things he has done in his life exist in his garden. Peter tries to create a garden in the old peoples’ home, but clearly it does not lead to atonement for him. Like the one he created on the island, the jungle keeps creeping back in. Yet, I am sure he still believes it possible and he keeps trying to the end, which reminds me strongly of a scene between Jasper and Johnny where Johnny says that paradise comes from the Persian word for garden, something he learned from Peter.

The book was full of these echoes and reflections. I am so impressed by how Tash Aw achieved this, got the three threads to touch in so many places and yet to come up with the conclusion that it is utterly impossible to know anyone or to be sure of history. And despite his setting, and his several references to the inscrutability of the East, I think this applies universally.

I thought Tash Aw deployed his skills to very good effect in this book. Basically, it is the story of a love triangle, but he achieved so much more with it. As well as the clever handling of the structure, the writing is very sound. There were some lovely lyrical passages, especially in Snow’s diary, but elsewhere too, that were as clear as photographs. Sometimes I could actually hear the sounds and songs.

I thought of this as a tragedy, many of the characters were so sad. Johnny was a Chinese peasant in Malaysia, what chance did he have? The snobbish Soongs did not approve of the likes of him. He loved Snow but seemed afraid to touch her (what a good name she had). I wonder if he ever did and whether he was ever in any doubt of who Jasper’s father was. I think Johnny knew and that is why Jasper felt he lacked the ability to love. Jasper seemed to me not to really hate his “father” (Johnny) but to be desperate to find some explanation for him feeling unloved. Peter’s lonely childhood, and abuse at the hands of a schoolmaster blighted his life for ever. He was also well named but I thought it was his life that was bitter, and not necessarily him. Snow had made Johnny fall in love with her and then found out he was afraid to touch her. She was desperate for love, both physical and intellectual. Honey I did not quite figure out. He was certainly not well named as he seemed quite a nasty piece of work to me (perhaps it was ironic). I wasn’t very happy about the portrayal of the English in Malaya at all, though I don’t mean it was unfair. I’m not sure either whether Mamoru was tragic or a monster, whether he became a monster because of the things he did, or did the things he did because he was a monster. For some reason, I don’t feel inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I thought this was a lovely book, a really good read. I enjoyed every page and I have thought about it a lot since I read it. As I went through the book, I put little stickers on places I thought I might want to talk about in this review. When I had finished, there were dozens of little stickers and I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, so I hope this review is lucid. I wonder, because the Snow diary part of the book reminded me strongly of an author I admire called Christopher Priest. He wrote some stories about a Dream Archipelago, which had the same dreamy, surreal, languid sort of tone. I think the Dream Archipelago was a fantasy, but it could have been real. Like here, I think reality itself is being questioned.

And it’s a good question!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for David Baker.
71 reviews5 followers
July 20, 2021
Terrific. I really did like this a lot. If you want a book that will transport you to a different time and place this is it. Beautifully written, fascinating, complex, beguiling, engrossing. Loved it.
Profile Image for Jayaprakash Satyamurthy.
Author 37 books469 followers
December 29, 2013
This will sound glib, but this is only 2/3 of a great novel.

Here's what it's about: Johnny Lim, a boondocks kid from Malaysia who attacks a tin mine owner, disappears and then surfaces as a worked in a textile shop. He falls in with the commie crowd and takes to offing people who are in his way. Outwardly respectable, if not quite of high social standing, he is really a kind of gangster. He marries the lovely Snow Soong, the daughter of a very high-society family. They embark on a kind of honeymoon with a strange cargo of chaperones in tow: Mr. Honey, a tin magnate, Wormwood, another Brit, but of a more eccentric variety and Nakamura, a Japanese academic with a shady war history. Once they are back, Johnny sets up the Harmony Silk Factory and Snow dies in childbirth, after giving birth to a boy, Jasper.

In the first part of the book, Jasper attempts to piece together his father's lie, using hearsay, rumour, academic sources, personal experience and fantasy in a manner that feels almost Sebaldian at times (think Austerlitz). Brilliant.

In the second part, we read Snow's diary, kept during that fateful trip. It's equally fascinating, seeing some of the same characters and incidents through another set of eyes, sifting through what Jasper gets wrong and what Snow gets wrong and what both of them know that the other could not.

The third part is where it falls apart from me. We read Wormwood's reminiscences when he is a doddering old man in a home for the age. He adds very little to the narrative, and nothing that we could not have inferred. The voice is overdone - way too elaborate, indulgent, wordy. After the fresh, compelling voices of Jasper and Snow this bit of ventriloquism - an Asian man imagining a Westerner's perspective - feels unnecessary. We have enough western accounts of the east, fact or fiction. The points this section may make about belonging and so forth may be valid but they are trite, done to death elsewhere. I would have greatly preferred to hear from Nakamura in the last section.

So there you have it. Almost a great novel. Pretty close!!!
Profile Image for Patrick McCoy.
937 reviews73 followers
May 24, 2015
Tash Aw's debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2006) is an impressive beginning. It is a complex historical-based novel set in Malaysia that showcases a skill in creating a number of distinct storytelling voices. It is a complex story with the enigmatic Malaysian Chinese communist/collaborator/businessman Johnny Lim at the forefront of a story told from three separate points of view. Lim, is linked to all three characters intimately, but none of them really know him or connect with him. The first part of the story "Johnny" is told from the point of view of his only son, Jasper, who survived a difficult childbirth that took the life of his mother. Jasper's story is told from the perspective of a journalist who has heavily researched his subject. His father remains a cypher at his death. Part Two: "1941" is essentially Snow's diary which records the events of 1941, prior to the Japanese occupation of Malaya, in which she is wed to Johnny and takes a vacation/honeymoon with Johnny, his best friend Peter Wormwood (an eccentric Englishman), Honey (a typical colonial Englishman who owns a tin mine), and the suave and later diabolical Kunichika. They travel to some uninhabited islands and their lives are forever changed by the events that take place there. Part Three, "The Garden," is told from the point of view of Peter who alternates from his present as an aging old man planning a garden at his rest home and the events of the past in which all of the characters were inextricably entwined. I like how Aw uses the novel to describe pre-WWII Malaya and life in the Kinta Valley. All in all quite a mature work fiction and I look forward to reading his subsequent novels: Map of the Invisible World and Five Star Billionaire.
Profile Image for Z.
639 reviews15 followers
July 1, 2010
Decidedly okay. It always felt like something was about to happen, but nothing really ever did. And there seemed to be a real lack of focus. In the end, I didn't really see what the point was, except that maybe people's perceptions are always going to be flawed. But, really, I didn't need to read this whole book to know that. So, eh. I won't be reading it again. I did love Peter, though.

Oh, and there were a couple references to how Johnny was the only one who thought that the Japanese would invade, which I thought was interesting. Conversations that I've had with people who were alive at the time have always included some sort of statement about how everyone knew the Japanese would invade (to a certain extent). Not that I'm arguing with it--I thought this was an interesting twist on things.
50 reviews
August 15, 2014
I liked the loose writing style, I was engaged with the story, but dramatic events didn't create as much drama as they warranted. having the significant section of the story from 3 different perspectives was interesting but Peter's section seemed less considered than the others. all in all for a book picked up in a charity shop on a trip away it was a good read.
Profile Image for Sorin Hadârcă.
Author 3 books213 followers
May 18, 2016
One of finest fiction here by the Malaysian Tash Aw. Son, wife and friend tell the story of one called Johnny, who is quite a different person depending upon who's talking. His character is elusive, so that the narrators end up telling their own stories instead. Isn't that exactly how life is? Unknown to others, unknown to self, only glimpses of facts reveal the subject now and then, never fully.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,808 reviews18 followers
April 11, 2019
Book 7 - Around The World Read - Tiawan*
The author was born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents. After moving to Britain, Tash Aw became a successful writer.
SUMMARY - Jasper's father, Johnny, owns the titular Harmony Silk Factory, but Johnny sees his father as a sort of crook, as the factory is a front for nefarious goings-on. (Key word: Harmony)
This multi-award winning novel took me to a place I've never been, physically or in book form: British Colonial Malaysia. I found this story to be more of a mood piece than anything else because I don't know enough about the political issues at the time to fully understand the complete story. I enjoyed the family conflicts, the romance, and the heavily atmospheric prose. I read this in a single day while visiting North Carolina: there was a record snowfall outside and a roaring fireplace kept me inside and turning the pages, sipping various teas from around the world. These factors led to a luscious, leisurely read. (I just found the book stored in a box with my notes about the book inside.)
*Taiwan is officially the "Republic of China". According to Wikipedia, the status of Taiwan is heavily contentious, as "The People's Republic of China" (or, simply, China) doesn't recognize Taiwan's independence. Again, I don't know enough about the issue to form an opinion or even to state that Wikipedia's comment is up-to-date. That said, this multi-cultural influenced work (Taiwan/Malaysia/Britain) is one to remember, and was long-listed for a Booker Award.
Profile Image for Girish.
855 reviews209 followers
November 18, 2021
A devilishly clever novel that keeps the reader guessing. The book in a lot of ways is a metaphor for history - involving Malaysian, British and Japanese characters in the 1940s and I am hoping it was intentional (and not a reader’s over imagination)

Johnny Lim is a legend and a survivor. His rise to becoming a Godfather in a confused country is narrated through stories heard by his son. Owner of Tiger Industries he plays the communist card when he sees the tide turning and ends up changing his stance with the times. The first part ends with his funeral.

The second part is the diary entries of Snow, Johnny's wife who talks about the period when Johnny, his friend Peter Wormwood, Japanese spy Professor and a British settler Honey go on a trip to the mystical islands. Through the jungles and islands of Malaya, the story shows the changing dynamics between them. The narrative takes on an almost psychedelic tone with mystery and legends. But the Johnny we see is a helpless pawn who is brooding for love.

The third part narrated by Peter closes the loop. In one of the well written pieces of the book, the narrator tells the story like an Opera, of the tragedy. If you read the book without any symbolism, it still works. The moment you have history as context, the book is a cunning metaphor.

Intelligent and affecting book
Profile Image for Lisabet Sarai.
Author 175 books166 followers
August 8, 2021
An ambitious novel that in my opinion does not completely succeed in its objectives. The tri-partite structure feels like an experiment, with the three sections very disparate in tone.

The novel offers wonderfully rich descriptions of pre-WWII Malaya, with all its wildness - but the central character of Johnny Lim never truly comes to life. He is seen through the eyes of his son, his wife and his friend, who have incredibly discrepant views of him. The reader is frustrated (well, I was frustrated) by never actually learning the truth. Or perhaps that is the point, that there is no truth, about anyone, even someone as remarkable and renowned as Johnny.

I actually found the character of Peter Wormwood, Johnny's self-exiled English friend who is intoxicated by Malaya, to be fascinating and quite realistic. I think the book would have been more effective if his voice had been the first we encountered, instead of the bland and self-congratulatory Jasper, Johnny's son.

Profile Image for Deborah.
918 reviews21 followers
May 14, 2021
Very Rashomon-like. The same core events, set in 1941 Malaysia on the brink of the Japanese invasion, are told from three different perspectives, and it becomes a real challenge to understand what really took place, which is surely the author’s intention. The enigmatic central figure, Johnny Lim, never speaks for himself, but his story is told by his son, his wife, and his good friend. Very evocative of a time and place.
Profile Image for Patrick.
286 reviews18 followers
July 27, 2015
How well you get on with this book is likely to depend somewhat on whether you enjoy or are instead irritated by, books that are puzzles to be solved, or at least, puzzled over, by their readers.

The book tells the story of Malaysian 'entrepreneur' Johnny Lim, focusing, in particular, on the events of the second world war, and his involvement with the British colonial rulers, the Chinese-backed Communist resistance and the Japanese military, who are in the process of usurping the British. It is told from three different perspectives: Johnny's son, Jasper; his wife, Snow, and his friend, Peter.

Each gives a very different account of who Mr Lim was, what drove him and what he did - and I was left with the impression that all were at least somewhat unreliable narrators. Jasper sees his father as an irredeemable, manipulative villain - who nearly murdered his father in law in order to seize control of the family business; who sold out his Communist comrades in order to curry favour with the Japanese invaders and who generally became a man of power and influence by trampling on anyone who got in his way.

To Snow, his late wife, whose side of the story is recounted through her diary entries, he is ultimately unknowable - she realises soon after they are married that they will never be truly close, though to what extent her attitude towards his is coloured by a possibly never consummated affair with the Japanese academic who accompanies them on their trip to the Seven Maids Islands. To his friend, Peter, by contrast, Lim is not the conniving mastermind of his son's imaginings (and Peter appears not to know what Jasper thinks of him) but the naive victim of forces be barely understands - unaware, it seems, of his wife's (implied) infidelity) or that he is being used as a pawn in her family's efforts to ensure they maintain power and influence with the exiting of the British and the coming of the Japanese.

All of which could be rather interesting. The trouble I had with the book was that none of these three stories really made me care about Lim's story. It felt like a bit of a dry intellectual exervise in showing how your understanding of what makes a person tick, their character, is inevitably shaped by your own vantage point. Aw never really made me care which, if any, of the partial pictures of Lim bore any resemblance to the man himself.

So Jasper thought that Lim shopped the Communist resistance to the Japanese to win power and influence for himself, while Peter appears to think that he tried to do all that he could to protect them and simply failed in those efforts. The trouble I have is that the book never makes me care which of those accounts is true.

But its not without appeal. In the right mood, perhaps if I read it all in a single sitting, rather than piecemeal over a week, I imagine I might have quite enjoyed puzzling over its insoluble puzzles...
Profile Image for Judy.
1,677 reviews280 followers
October 19, 2013

I don't believe I have read a novel set in Malaysia before. I admit I was a little vague on where that country is and had to look it up. Tash Aw made a big splash with this first novel. His third, Five Star Billionaire is being published in July and I decided it was time to investigate this author. It was a good decision.

The Harmony Silk Factory is the textiles store of Johnny Lim who came to Malaya with his peasant family from China in the early 20th century and rose up in business and politics. The novel is made up of three sections, each of which tell Johnny Lim's controversial story from a different perspective. Was he a hero of the people or a collaborator? What did he really sell from his imposing structure?

His son Jaspar, whose mother died during childbirth, sees his father as dishonest in both business and politics. Snow, the wife who died, left a diary in which she portrayed a man who loved his wife dearly but whose love was unrequited. Finally, Johnny's only true friend, Peter Wormwood, presents another side of the man from the viewpoint of an Englishman who had gone native.

At times I felt a bit adrift but could tell that the story of Johnny would come together like a jigsaw puzzle by the end. And it did, though I understood that knowing any individual is a matter of one's own perceptions and that others will see that individual in various other ways. The novel is a brilliant examination of that truth.

For me, the story was also another piece of the puzzle concerning life in the Far East during the 20th century. I suppose I could read more history books about the area but it is working just fine for me to use a historical timeline found somewhere on the web while I read novels. The interrelations of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Malaysians, etc, come alive through the characters and their stories in novels as they rarely do for me when I read history.

It is the stories of the people that I find gripping and we are so fortunate to have had a publishing business to bring us these stories now for hundreds of years. Tash Aw was born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents, grew up in Malaysia, moved to England for university, became a lawyer and then a writer. He does not write like a lawyer, but like the great storytellers of the ages.

His next novel, Map of the Invisible World, 2009, is already on my shelves. I can't wait.
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