Under the Pong Pong Tree by Hal Levey

Under the Pong Pong Tree

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A debut historical novel follows a young woman struggling in Singapore during and after the Japanese occupation and her abandoned daughter.

Set at the outset of the invasion of Singapore by brutal Japanese forces during World War II, this tale focuses on a teenage girl, Li Lian Goh, who is spared from death only to be forced into servitude in a military brothel. After she is impregnated by a sadistic Japanese officer, Li Lian flees the brothel to secure her own safety and to protect her child. Li Lian finds shelter in a Malay village, where she gives birth to her daughter, Maimunah. Leaving Maimunah to be raised in the village, Li Lian returns to Singapore to join the burgeoning resistance. During one of its jungle campaigns, she saves the lives of two sisters, the owners of a nearby rubber plantation, helping them to return home. Out of gratitude, the sisters leave their estate to Li Lian, where she quickly becomes successful in the rubber manufacturing business as well as in the estate’s secret production of opium and heroin. Li Lian’s triumph makes her a target of rival organizations, particularly as the heroin trade blossoms during the Vietnam War. With the influx of American armed forces into Singapore, heroin makes its way through the ranks, creating problems for military officials. American officer Mike Cagle is assigned to collaborate with the U.S. Embassy to trace the supply chain. Through his investigation of Singapore’s bars and brothels, Mike crosses paths with Maimunah, now a college student studying abroad. They quickly fall in love as Mike’s work draws their histories closer together and puts him in great danger. Levey crafts a plot that interweaves the characters’ lives with the conflict-laden history of Singapore. The novel provides a singular glimpse into the battles of that Asian nation, reflecting the hardships of those living through multiple generations of war and violence as well as providing details about the area’s rubber and opium trades, all explored in depth. Given the scope of the book’s preoccupations, it is not surprising that Levey struggles to maintain the narrative’s balance, with the story and prose often lagging, particularly during the technical or historical digressions. These shortcomings shouldn’t deter readers from becoming absorbed in the tragedies that the tale’s characters endure, but they undercut the novel’s ambitions.

An expansive but stifled drama about the ravages of war.

Pub Date: Nov. 11th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4917-7750-3
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: iUniverse
Program: Kirkus Indie
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