Reviews by patricia alvis
How often do we focus our attention on the events of World War II in Malaysia? This is a worthy introduction to the subject. The use of fiction allows the bringing together of persons from all aspects of life in that area at the time and after. Malaysia as the war began was a set of mostly British colonial sectors. Amid the Japanese invasion, there were also political movements and rumblings of an independence movement. The Afrikaaner tea planter is a veteran of the Boer War with no reason to approve of British rule except for business reasons. The Japanese gardener appears to have dissociated himself from Japanese imperial aspirations. Yun Ling, the Straits Chinese, who cannot speak Chinese, was educated in British mission schools, and is described satirically by a Malaysian as looking to England as her homeland. These people, living in proximity, furnish important elements in one another's lives over several generations. This is a rich tapestry of all the people and events and ambitions of a particular time and place. In the end, the reader is left with a set of acquaintances worth caring about, and some questions about the world we live in to ponder for a considerable time.
Reading the two A2Y finalists, I could not help comparing the two, and by that measure alone, this one falls very short. Yes, it is a sad story, and yes it is based in history. Ask yourself, how many books have you been asked to admire because they place identifiablly good people at the mercy of identifiably bad people? Did this one add any nuance to the standard story? The author 's ethnic heritage is Lithuanian, but there is no evidence that she knew very much about the history of the Baltic nations, the relationships amon the Slavic peoples, their reasoning in escaping from the USSR via Hitler's Germany. If we are to learn from history, we must view it in living color, not just shades of gray, mostly black and whire. This author is at the beginning of her career. She needs to dig deeper.
This book is one of many reflecting the anxiety resulting from the publication of The Origin of the Species. The underworld visited by the narrator is inhabited by a race further evolved than 19th century humans, and the narrator finds them pretty disturbing. If you want to get serious, you can read scholars on the misunderstanding of the theory of natural selection that precipitated draconian ideas about eugenics that permeate social and political philosophy up to this minute. This is just a yarn about an imaginary place. Incidentally this new edition has on the dust jacket an illustration painted by John Marten?? for a 19th century edition of Paradise Lost. See if it doesn't remind you of practically every sci fi setting including Avatar. Have fun.
I read this book when it was being considered as an Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads. I think it was beaten out by Mountains Beyond Mountains, a better choice for that purpose. In the interim, events in the wider world and my own immediate community got me thinking that this was a good choice for a small discussion group. I have suggested it for that purpose at the senior apartments where we live. My idea is that each participant discuss a chapter of the book in terms of the kind of population that represented the community, the situation it addressed, and the reasons why it succeeded. We are so good at theorizing about community, often for other people, and so poor at applying it to our own interrelations. As I write this, I hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chiding various countries for their bad behavior, and I remember Condoleeza Rice in the same position, and I wonder--is it our role as the greatest democracy to provide the International Scold? We have this wonderful president after such a drought of good leadership. I will do what I can to try to support his efforts to shape the world into more of a community. This book is a good manual.
Ken Follett is an always engaging writer of thrillers with a lot of brain spent on background. This mammoth (973p.) historical novel is a fully filled-out picture of life in England a couple of generations after William the Conqueror. His village setting brings together an earnest, intelligent prior, a minimally pious mason who dreams of building a cathedral, a bishop who sees wealth and power as the fulfillment of his religious vows, and a hierarchy of rulers most of whom are unregulated brutes. This is a wonderful story of fully realized men and women living through a time of deep faith, chancy welfare, savage cruelty, houses where a private room is rare, and horsemen enter the common room without dismounting. If you read this, I'd guess that you won't be able to resist the sequel, just out and 20 years in the writing.