A sultry first novel of betrayal, with an exotic setting (Malaya) and a WWII link. Could it be another English Patient? As a literary creation, no way; as raw material for a movie, maybe.
Who is Johnny Lim? Aw gives us three versions of the Chinese businessman, from three different narrators. To his son Jasper, he’s a monster, and not just because he’s a drug kingpin, the richest man in Malaya’s Kinta Valley. Item: Johnny murdered his first patron, Tiger Tan, to get his textile business. Item: Johnny replaced his father-in-law as the valley’s chief power-broker by injuring him in a fire he set himself. Item: In 1942, Johnny, a secret Communist commander, betrayed his fellow commanders, who were then massacred by the occupying Japanese. Curiously, we learn little about Johnny’s competence as a father, but we do know that Jasper’s mother, Snow, died giving birth to him. This young woman, a great beauty, is the second narrator. In 1941, she’s steeling herself to leave Johnny after only a year’s marriage; she finds him alien and unknowable, the qualities that originally attracted her. But Snow’s Johnny is no monster. The child of laborers, he’s in awe of the highborn Snow and barely touches her. The heart of her story is an ill-fated expedition the two make to the mysterious islands Seven Maidens. They’re accompanied by two Englishmen (one is Peter, an epicene aesthete and Johnny’s only friend) and a Japanese man, Mamoru, who will achieve his own notoriety as the Valley’s eventual administrator. Snow’s account is as evasive as Jasper’s was explicit. The third narrator is Peter. For him, Johnny is an innocent child, worried that he’ll lose Snow to Peter’s superior charms. Peter himself is far from innocent, a bitter, poisonous man who will indeed betray Johnny, though the friendship has been implausible from the get-go.
Atmospherics substitute for credible characterization in this Malaysian writer’s sluggish, awkward account of a man’s many selves.