This book started out so incredibly delicious for me that I began writing a little summary – I find doing that keeps me really focused for long periods of time. The entire book didn’t live up to the promise of the first 100 or 150 pages, but I kept going – enthralled. There’s a certain thriller aspect to it. Warning – both NOTES pages are totally ridden with spoilers – more like summaries with photos and links – this review is clean –
The story opens in 1995 when Philip Hutton answers the door at his large and luxurious home in Penang to find a small, elderly Japanese woman who has come seeking information about a former lover – the Japanese aikijutsu master, Endo-san. And this starts Philip remembering a long story of war and conflicting loyalties. Both parts, frame and war-story, are told in the first person. Although the war story is much longer and comprises the bulk of the book, both sections move along in a linear fashion toward a satisfactory conclusion.
Philip’s memories: In 1938 or so, Philip Hutton, the youngest son of the wealthy English Noel Hutton, owner of one of the largest firms in Georgetown, Penang meets the Japanese immigrant, Endo-san, an aikijujutsu -master, who leases from Noel a small island off their beach-front property. Philip is the child of Noel’s union with his second wife, a Chinese woman and Philip feels he has never really quite fit with Noel’s first three children.
Endo-san and Philip form a rather unique spiritual bond and Endo-san trains him vigorously. Endo-san says there will come a time when the training will be necessary. And there does.
When the Japanese threaten southern Malaysia the Huttons refuse to leave as directed. This puts all of them in danger. Philip has always felt different from his family and wants to know his Chinese family, but except for one aunt, the grandfather has refused to see him. This changes – who is Philip? Where are his loyalties? Who is Endo-san, why is he in Penang, and what does he want from Philip?
A huge theme is age and memory and we’re warned by Hutton’s long-time secretary that Hutton’s memory might not be infallible: “Only the old people remember now. And thank God their memories are so unreliable.” (p. 18- Kindle) Other themes are love and loyalty, fate vs free will, repeating lives with connections and secrets.
This is a beautifully visioned and written book, although the narrative does get a bit over-wrought sometimes. The story is complex and multi-faceted, layered with themes and motifs. The characters were very nicely drawn – I felt close to several. But the big draw, for me anyway, is the history which Tan really highlights but also treats with respect as well as just a touch of creativity. This is what makes the book a 9+. It’s historical fiction in the very best sense of the term – everything I want in the genre – accuracy completely interwoven with a great plot including themes and great writing.
Actually, I got so carried away with the history that I started taking notes – which keeps me focused sometimes – and ended up, as I said, with two pages of them – photos, links, etc.