A rumination on the way systems of power and currents of hope in modern-day Malaysia can influence a life.
When Lee Hock Lye clubs a Bangladeshi stranger to death with a two-foot piece of wood, everyone is searching for a motive. Even after Ah Hock has served his three-year prison sentence, an American-educated sociology student wants to interview him for her dissertation. She wants to understand his story. “Why? That’s what you want to know. Just like everyone else,” he confronts her early in the novel, “But like the others, you’re going to be disappointed.” Ah Hock himself has spent months reckoning with the why of it all, but to no end. “I tried to excavate the layers of my thoughts,” he explains, “digging patiently the way I used to in the mud on our farm when I was a child.” Still, Ah Hock invites the student into his home and, over the course of several months, shares the details of his past, hoping she can “set the record straight” where his defense attorney got it wrong. Aw (Five Star Billionaire, 2013, etc.) drops readers into each phase of Ah Hock’s life, beginning with his birth in a small Malaysian fishing village, moving through his childhood days as a passive onlooker to his friend Keong’s reckless ambition, and capturing in warm detail the sense of “permanence” and “abundance” he once felt building a farm with his mother. As he crafts Ah Hock’s narrative, Aw masterfully conveys his protagonist's specificity while also weaving together a larger picture of the class divisions, racial biases, unjust working conditions, and gender roles that pulse under the surface. Through his interviews with the student—and his reflections on his role as a subject—Ah Hock shares the vital pieces of his story that escaped cross-examination.
A raw depiction of one man’s troubled life and the web of social forces that worked to shape it.