In her first novel, Thien (stories: Simple Recipes, 2002) intertwines a straightforward, though bittersweet, contemporary romance between a doctor and a journalist with the more complicated relationships between the journalist’s Malaysian father and the two women he loved.
Gail, a 39-year-old Vancouver journalist, dies suddenly while working on a documentary about a Canadian prisoner of war in Sandakan, Malaysia, during WWII. Her distraught husband, Ansel, an AIDS doctor, relives the ten years of their life together, particularly the last year, when his brief affair almost caused the marriage to unravel. Also mourning are Gail’s parents. On a trip to Amsterdam for her documentary only months before she died, Gail uncovered truths about her parents’ lives that helped her reunite with Ansel. Gail’s father, Matthew, grew up in Sandakan during the war. After his father, who had collaborated with the Japanese invaders, was murdered, Matthew left Sandakan with his mother. Returning at 18, he fell in love with his old playmate Ani. They planned to marry until she suddenly rebuffed him. He ended up in college in Australia, where he met Clara, who’d come from Hong Kong. They married, moved to Vancouver and began a family. But memories of Ani still haunted Matthew, who knew only that she had a child and lived in Jakarta. In 1957, with Clara’s blessing, he went to see Ani. He learned that she had been pregnant with his child when she rejected him to save him from a life in Sandakan where his family was reviled. Matthew spent an afternoon with Ani and their little boy, then returned to Clara without regret. Ani left for Amsterdam. The present-day story, even Gail’s death, is overwhelmed by Ani’s vibrant drama.
The elegant prose and carefully rendered plot are almost too understated to convey the operatic emotions.