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The Rise and Fall of 'The Harmony Silk Factory'


Writer and Londoner Tash Aw was raised in Malaysia. His first novel is "The Harmony Silk Factory," and Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

The title of Tash Aw's novel refers us to the textile shop in a Malaysian valley just east of the Strait of Malacca. The book opens with the first of three narrators: Jasper Lim, giving us the story of his Chinese father, Lim Seng Chin, otherwise known as Johnny Lim, and how he rose to power as a merchant and political force. The silk factory itself, which Johnny bought in the early 1940s, just before the Japanese occupation, is unremarkable. Johnny is anything but. As his son describes him in his early days as a cloth merchant, he likes the irregular patterns in cloth and life.

As Johnny's aristocratic wife Snow Soong, the second narrator, describes him, there was something in the way he moved with the freedom and uncertain strength of a young animal flexing its limbs.

The third narrator, Peter Wormwood, a British expatriate who becomes Johnny's best friend, views him even more complexly, as a native with an intensely inquiring mind--in fact, the only person in Singapore, where he first encounters him in a cafe, who reads Shelley.

The story of Johnny as father, husband, businessman, political figure, murderer, traitor and friend is fascinating stuff, the story of a Malaysian Gatsby. Clearly Tash Aw is a writer to watch with a first book anyone who travels by fiction will want to read.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Harmony Silk Factory" by Tash Aw. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.