The Harmony Silk Factory is the story of a man told through the different perspectives of three characters who were each close to him. Johnny Lim is a wealthy Malaysian-Chinese merchant with a checkered and mysterious past who was the father of the first narrator, the husband of the second, and the best friend of the third. To each, he was a different person – his son saw him as a dark, evil man; to his wife Johnny Lim was distant and timid, his best friend considered him a sensitive and insecure soul – which is sometimes true for us in life as well, and the book challenges readers to decide what kind of person Johnny Lim, who has just passed away at the end of the first part, was.
The book starts off strong as the son’s recollection of his father and description of what is supposedly a dull part of Malaysia are filled with intrigue that leaves you rushing to find out what happens next. The writing is smooth and flows well, but the problem is the plot lags a little in the second part which is the man’s wife’s lengthy recollection of a boat trip honeymoon gone awry. It is not helped that the woman, a local beauty called Snow who has her fair share of suitors, comes across as whimsical and not one to arouse any sympathy. The book picks up in the final part and becomes more lively with the jaunty and artistically-inclined Englishman who was Johnny Lim’s best and only real friend, up until the sobering conclusion.
The novel is set completely in the author’s native Malaysia, specifically the Kinta Valley, during the British colonial period before and during World War II. The author Tash Aw does well in presenting a backdrop rich in geographical detail and the life of colonial and local societies. It’s the first book I’ve read from Aw who has a very diverse background – born in Taipei, Taiwan to Malaysian-Chinese parents, raised in Malaysia, and based in London.