A Chinese family’s divided loyalties are tested in the crucible of war in this dramatic first novel, set in Singapore during WWII, on the eve of the Japanese invasion and occupation.
Loh focuses at first on the family of prosperous businessman and passionate Anglophile Humphrey Lim: his wife Cynthia, who finds relief from her husband’s “infatu[ation] with the idea of Empire” by taking white lovers; daughter Lucy and bookish son Claude (the viewpoint character for most of the story’s major events); and Grandma Siok, a memorable mixture of sharp intelligence and gallows humor, who amuses herself by studying the Chinese strategic classic The Art of War. Somewhat reminiscent of both Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Loh’s subtle narrative exfoliates skillfully, drawing in such other characters as Jack Winchester, Claude’s young English classmate and friend; Australian-born RAF pilot (and double agent) Patrick Heenan; and, most notably, Ling-li Han, a trainee nurse (and, perhaps, also a spy) whose accidental involvement with first Claude, then Jack (when the latter, left behind when his wealthy family escaped to England, suffers a serious leg infection) is eventually shown in its relation to the opening episode, a scene that Loh repeatedly returns to: the torture of political prisoners by the Japanese military. Much of the narrative reads like an exotic fever dream in which Loh’s characters scramble for safety and shuffle commitments and allegiances, endangered everywhere, belonging nowhere. “The Employment of Secret Agents” by all factions influences a fluidity of identity that’s stunningly embodied in Claude’s boyhood request that Grandma Siok teach him the Chinese language his father has rejected—and his resumption of this ambition in the scorching closing pages (wherein the meaning of Loh’s brilliant title is fully revealed).
One of the most ambitious and accomplished debut novels in recent memory.