Breaking the Tongue

Breaking the Tongue

5.0 2
by Vyvyane Loh

"Dramatic....One of the most ambitious and accomplished debut novels in recent memory."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review.
"This masterly novel is not only bold and challenging but also beautifully written. The reader will be left breathless by the ending."—Library Journal"A moving accomplishment."—Publishers Weekly, starred review "Vyvyane Loh's


"Dramatic....One of the most ambitious and accomplished debut novels in recent memory."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review.
"This masterly novel is not only bold and challenging but also beautifully written. The reader will be left breathless by the ending."—Library Journal"A moving accomplishment."—Publishers Weekly, starred review "Vyvyane Loh's richly ambitious narrative weaves the personal and the political into an unforgettable novel."—Claire Messud "In the tradition of Rushdie or Ondaatje, this is one of the most accomplished first novels I've ever seen."—Andrea Barrett "A revelatory book that is both novel and history, written with splendid and intelligent humanity."—Shirley Hazzard, author ofThe Great Fire
This brilliant novel chronicles the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II. Central to the story is one Chinese family: Claude, raised to be more British than the British and ashamed of his own heritage; his father, Humphrey, whose Anglophilia blinds him to possible defeat and his wife's dalliances; and the redoubtable Grandma Siok, whose sage advice falls on deaf ears. Expatriates, spies, fifth columnists, and nationalists—including the elusive young woman Ling-Li—mingle in this exotic culture as the Japanese threat looms. Beset by the horror of war and betrayal and, finally, torture, Claude must embrace his true heritage. In the extraordinary final paragraphs of the novel, the language itself breaks into Chinese. With penetrating observation, Vyvyane Loh unfolds the coming-of-age story of a young man and a nation, a story that deals with myth, race, and class, with the ways language shapes perceptions, and with the intrigue and suffering of war. Reading group guide included.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In her first novel, Breaking the Tongue, Vyvyane Loh elegantly chronicles a young man's coming of age during the fall of Singapore in World War II. Along the way, she explores such concepts as loyalty to one's family and country, the place of language in culture, and the roles of race, racism and ethnicity in how we perceive ourselves and others. In doing so, she has skillfully touched on questions at the very heart of politics, culture and global relations today. — Lisa See
Publishers Weekly
Nothing symbolized the internal decay of the British Empire more than the fall of its crown jewel in the East, Singapore, "the impregnable fortress," to a relatively small force of Japanese in 1942. Loh's first novel uses the recent revelation that the British air force was betrayed to the Japanese by a British officer, Patrick Heenan, to spin a complex tale that exemplifies Sun Tzu's saying, "all warfare is based on deception." Most of Loh's story circles out from and loops back to a central sequence: the graphic torture of Claude Lim by Japanese interrogators. Claude's pain triggers a visionary experience, in which he is able to "see" the recent actions of the rest of the characters. Claude's father, Humphrey, a senior bank official, is such a confirmed Anglophile he doesn't even teach his boy Chinese; while his mother, Cynthia, takes assimilation to the extent of having affairs with white men. These include Jack Winchester, a recent arrival, who represents a new English consciousness: vaguely guilty about Britain's past history of racism, but acting with the unconscious superiority that arises from that history. Claude is volunteered-by his father-to serve as Jack's guide to Singapore; in this way, they become "friends." Meanwhile, Han Ling-li, a nurse, has been hired as a secret agent to supply the British with information about Japanese strategy. Ling-li, a nationalist, opposes the British, but prefers them to the Japanese. Unfortunately, her opposite number, British officer Patrick Heenan, is more successful spying for Japan. The convergence of Jack, Claude and Ling-li as the city implodes during the siege initiates Claude's reconciliation with his ethnic past. Loh's prose is sometimes clich d-Claude's torturer sounds like a movie villain: "But we have ways, you know, of breaking down barriers and extracting information." Despite such lapses, this is a solid and moving accomplishment. (Mar.) Forecast: Booksellers can recommend this debut to fans of Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire or Michael Ondaatje. Strong reviews could lead to brisk sales, primed by a seven-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This extraordinary first novel centers on the intricate tale of Claude, a member of a Chinese family raised to spurn his heritage and position himself to embrace the customs and mores of the British ruling Singapore. The novel is grand in scope, covering such highly charged topics as mythology, race, class, family duty, loyalty, torture, and war. The cast of characters is equally grand, with a large troupe coming from all over the globe. Loh interjects distinct voices in the form of Englishman Jack Winchester; Claude's mother, who has a penchant for English gentlemen; and the wise grandmother whose wisdom and experience is not always acknowledged. At novel's end, Claude finally embraces his heritage. Using Singapore's fall to Japan in World War II as its backdrop, this masterly novel is not only bold and challenging but also beautifully written. The reader will be left breathless by the ending. A definite plus for public libraries where weighty historical or literary fiction does well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/03.]-Christopher J. Korenowsky, Columbus Metropolitan Lib. Syst. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 theChinese 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. Agent: Brettne Bloom/Kneerim & Williams

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.38(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Vyvyane Loh was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore. She holds undergraduate and medical degrees from Boston University, and she graduated from the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She now lives outside Boston.

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Breaking the Tongue 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book not quite knowing to expect, concerned that I may be venturing into a novel imitation of Amy Tan. Instead, I found myself reading a rich and inspired novel more in the tradition of 'A Passage to India' or 'The Quiet American' with its incredible sense of place and time. As the child of an Army man who was stationed in Malaya in the 1960s, I have some insider knowledge of how things were during that period. It is not a far stretch to imagine life in Malaya 20 years prior. I cannot remember when a book last challenged me to this extent with the richness of its themes and the complexity of its characters. I hope that Ms Loh does not waste any time in producing another masterpiece.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Pulitzer material