Though this debut novel of divided loyalties in Southeast Asia during World War II has the epic sweep of a TV mini-series, portentous dialogue and belabored themes undermine its otherwise engrossing plot.
Narrating the novel, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is Philip Hutton, whom the reader first encounters as the Malaysian island of Penang is about to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of Japanese occupation. As the surviving member of one of the island’s leading families, the half-Chinese, half-English Hutton is surprised to receive a visitor from Japan, Michiko Murakami, an aged woman previously unknown to him. She soon reveals that the two have a strong tie through their mutual association with Hayato Endo, a teacher of martial arts and Zen Buddhism, who had exerted a profound influence on both. Much of the rest of the novel finds Philip relating to Michiko (and the reader) how his relationship with Endo had determined his life’s course. The narrative structure is a little clunky (Michiko disappears for hundreds of pages at a time, making the reader wonder whether this setup is really necessary), but Hutton’s story is frequently compelling. He had become the pupil of the Japanese master as a teenager, when he was already struggling with questions of identity and allegiance. The only child of his British father’s second marriage, to a Chinese woman who died when he was a boy, he felt like a foreigner with his father and stepsiblings. The influence of Endo on Philip further complicates familial relations, particularly after Japan invades Malaya during World War II. Was Philip a collaborator who betrayed his own country? Did he do what he needed to protect his family? Or was he a patriot engaged in subversion against the Japanese who had come to trust him?
The author makes it clear that issues of treason and patriotism—and fate and free will—defy easy resolution.