First-novelist Lim (Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands, not reviewed, etc.) ambitiously explores racial, cultural, and gender prejudices while somewhat schematically chronicling the efforts of a young professional Chinese woman to raise her mixed-race child.
It’s 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, and an upcoming election is intensifying tensions between the majority Malayans and the minority but more affluent Chinese and East Indian citizens. Although newly married Li An and her scientist husband Henry are Chinese, both believe in a multicultural Malaysia. Li An teaches English literature at the university and dreams of becoming a writer, but she soon finds the outside world intruding in unsuspected ways. A best friend commits suicide when her Chinese parents refuse to let her marry the East Indian man she loves; a friendship with Peace Corps worker Chester Brookfield turns out to be more enjoyable than her relationship with Henry; and she meets Malayan nationalists who deride her notions of multiculturalism. Matters come to a head on Election Day, when anti-Chinese riots break out, a curfew is imposed, and Li An, who has been visiting Chester, must spend the night with him—with depressingly predictable consequences. She gets pregnant, and when Henry sees the baby, he leaves her. Li An moves to Singapore. Meanwhile, Chester, back in the US and unaware of what’s transpired, marries and begins university teaching. Later, after he learns that Li An has a child, a girl, he sets out to see his daughter. Li An has never told Suyin about her paternity, but she’s already endured snide comments from her classmates and suspects her father is a foreigner. Protective Li An is not eager for Suyin to meet Chester, but life gets even more complicated when Henry reappears and Suyin finds herself with two men who now want to be her father.
Vivid local color compensates some for a disappointingly flat story with characters who are more concept–spear-carrier than fully realized people.