Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The House of Trembling Leaves - Julian Lees - guest review

For readers not familiar with the Japanese invasion of Malaya during the second world war, or the results of Chairman Mao's teachings on the Chinese living in Malaya during the 1950s, or the Dhali Llama's flight from Tibet when that country was sealed up by the Chinese in the late 1950s; this is a book of fiction which has world events woven in very well indeed. This may be because the author, born in Hong Kong, and now living in Malaysia, has a background able to describe these happenings as part of his own history. And if this sounds heavy going, stay with me. This is a book with a nice flowing style, well rounded major characters, all with a story to tell. And very importantly, it's the story of two strong women friends – one a Chinese Malay, and one a Tibetan, whose lives are intertwined until their early twenties when a series of happenings split them up and both believe they may never see each other again.
Lu See is the Chinese, who with the help of some family money from an Aunt (spoken of, but never seen in the book) runs away to England, where she is sure to get a place at Girton College Cambridge if she studies hard. She takes with her Sum Sum, her servant, although there is no sign of servant and master, they really are close friends. Sum Sum becomes pregnant, and, very near the birth of her child, her friend Lu See becomes widowed, having married her Chinese lover soon after arriving in Cambridge – and it is not long after this when Lu See awakes one day to find that Sum Sum has fled, aiming to get back to her Tibetan homeland.
Some years later, we find that the Japanese are in Malaya, where Lu See is returned with her daughter Mabel, and is cooking for a Japanese officer in what was her own family home and things are not looking good. It's a dreadful time for everyone, but it has to be borne – Lu See is supporting her family on the (very) small pay that the officer doles out, and whilst she cooks him traditional English food like shepherd's pie and bubble and squeak, she and her family must exist on leftovers and rice – because the money doesn't stretch far. Things change at the end of WW2, and Lu See, still desperate to be in touch with her friend Sum Sum, moves her family to Kuala Lumpur and opens a restaurant.
It wouldn't be fair to tell you more of the story because there are lots of things happening and several darker characters which you will need to find for yourselves. But this was an easy book to read, despite it's 400 pages – it took me only a few days, and it's the sort of book where you just keep wanting to read “one more chapter”. Lots of real stuff and some gory details described well amongst the fiction, and the story itself was well worth the read. The publisher is Scottish – Sandstone Press, and has certainly picked a worthwhile book here – with two caveats. One is the mention of teabags in use by a working class landlady in Cambridge in 1936: although they were definitely invented many years before that, they were only starting to become used in Britain in 1950 after a push by Tetleys. The other is the cover.  I cannot see any reason whatsoever for having a naked girl in a field of flowers, or the use of drab colouring. It certainly has nothing at all to do with the story, and I wouldn't give it a second glance on the front table of Waterstones. Pity. 4 out of 5 for me.

Reviewed by Susan Maclean - guest reviewer

Published by Sandstone Press

Thanks very much to Susan for kindly reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library. Susan blogs at Mac-Adventures (with Books!)

Thanks very much to the publisher for kindly sending a review copy of this novel. 

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I'm so happy you said what you did about the cover, because it put me off, too. In fact, I almost didn't take the time to read the review because of it. So glad I did!


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