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The Harmony Silk Factory
     

The Harmony Silk Factory

3.3 3
by Tash Aw
 

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The Harmony Silk Factory, Tash Aw's highly original first novel juxtaposes three accounts of a crucial and haunting episode in the history of a Malaysian Chinese family.

This is the story of Johnny Lim, textile merchant, petty crook, and inventor of the Amazing Toddy Machine, and his marriage to Snow Soong, the most beautiful woman in the Kinta Valley. In

Overview

The Harmony Silk Factory, Tash Aw's highly original first novel juxtaposes three accounts of a crucial and haunting episode in the history of a Malaysian Chinese family.

This is the story of Johnny Lim, textile merchant, petty crook, and inventor of the Amazing Toddy Machine, and his marriage to Snow Soong, the most beautiful woman in the Kinta Valley. In 1940, with the Japanese threatening to invade, Johnny and Snow embark upon their honeymoon – recounted in Snow's captivating journal – to the mysterious Seven Maiden Islands, accompanied by a mercurial Japanese professor and Peter Wormwood, an Englishman adrift. Many years later, Wormwood looks back on this defining journey, while Snow's only son goes in search of the truth of his mother and the infamous Chinaman she married.

Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and Anthony Burgess have mapped our idea of Malaysia. Now with The Harmony Silk Factory, we have an authentic Malaysian voice that reshapes this literary landscape. Set against the backdrop of a country in crisis, The Harmony Silk Factory is both a mystery and a confession that dramatizes the ambiguous nature of identity.

Editorial Reviews

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Malaysia in the 1940s: part paradise, part Conradian heart of darkness. In a highly original first novel that sets a lush landscape at a historical crossroads, Tash Aw portrays three unique perspectives on the character and life of a highly enigmatic man. To his son, Johnny Lim is a traitor and a murderer; to his beautiful wife, he's a man without a past; and to his best and only friend, he's a fiercely magnetic confidant. Having fled his rural background as a young man, Johnny arrives in the Kinta Valley with little more than a new name and a burning desire to begin an odyssey that will make him the richest, most influential man in the region. As the years pass, some regard him as a hero -- a Communist who fought against the Japanese, and a successful businessman who married the most desirable woman in the country. But others, including his son, suspect something much darker.

Defly weaving the three different narratives, Aw has created a masterful portrait of a disturbing and complex man that explores how little we really know about each other -- even those to whom we are closest. Culturally and historically rich, with characters made real by their very frailty, The Harmony Silk Factory is an accomplished and provocative debut that does what only the best fiction can. It challenges readers with its scope and sagacity and moves them with its imagination and restraint. (Summer 2005 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
Aw slices his first novel into three segments, wherein three characters dissect the nature of Johnny Lim, a controversial figure in 1940s Malaysia. Depending on the teller, Johnny was a Communist leader, an informer for the Japanese, a dangerous black-market trader, a working-class Chinese man too in awe of his aristocratic wife to have sex with her, or a loyal friend. Long after Johnny's death, we hear these conflicting accounts from his grown son, Jasper; his wife, Snow (through the lens of her 1941 diary); and his English expatriate friend, Peter Wormwood. The chief benefit of this structural trick is to make palpable the limitations of each character's perspective, and that's no mean feat. But Aw's prose, though often witty and taut, is not equally convincing in all its guises. Jasper is the typical alienated son who burns to discover all the crimes his father committed; this also makes him the typical unreliable narrator (when his father kills a mosquito that had bitten him, Jasper cites this as proof of an innate "streak of malice"). When Snow takes over, Johnny suddenly resembles a more ordinary man, while she-adored by her son, whose birth caused her death-reveals herself to be a fallible character and an unfaithful wife. The most boisterous and enjoyable thread of this story belongs to Peter, with whose chipper English patter Aw, oddly enough, seems most at home. Agent, David Godwin. Foreign rights sold in 10 countries. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sultry first novel of betrayal, with an exotic setting (Malaya) and a WWII link. Could it be another English Patient? As a literary creation, no way; as raw material for a movie, maybe. Who is Johnny Lim? Aw gives us three versions of the Chinese businessman, from three different narrators. To his son Jasper, he's a monster, and not just because he's a drug kingpin, the richest man in Malaya's Kinta Valley. Item: Johnny murdered his first patron, Tiger Tan, to get his textile business. Item: Johnny replaced his father-in-law as the valley's chief power-broker by injuring him in a fire he set himself. Item: In 1942, Johnny, a secret Communist commander, betrayed his fellow commanders, who were then massacred by the occupying Japanese. Curiously, we learn little about Johnny's competence as a father, but we do know that Jasper's mother, Snow, died giving birth to him. This young woman, a great beauty, is the second narrator. In 1941, she's steeling herself to leave Johnny after only a year's marriage; she finds him alien and unknowable, the qualities that originally attracted her. But Snow's Johnny is no monster. The child of laborers, he's in awe of the highborn Snow and barely touches her. The heart of her story is an ill-fated expedition the two make to the mysterious islands Seven Maidens. They're accompanied by two Englishmen (one is Peter, an epicene aesthete and Johnny's only friend) and a Japanese man, Mamoru, who will achieve his own notoriety as the Valley's eventual administrator. Snow's account is as evasive as Jasper's was explicit. The third narrator is Peter. For him, Johnny is an innocent child, worried that he'll lose Snow to Peter's superior charms. Peter himself is farfrom innocent, a bitter, poisonous man who will indeed betray Johnny, though the friendship has been implausible from the get-go. Atmospherics substitute for credible characterization in this Malaysian writer's sluggish, awkward account of a man's many selves.
From the Publisher
"Unputdownable."—Doris Lessing

"A beguiling narrative mosaic...bewitchingly written...mercilessly gripping."—The Times (London)

"First reaction: WOW! Second reaction: Read it."—Asian Week

"A beautifully composed and memorable story...A first book anyone who travels by fiction will want to read."—San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781573223003
Publisher:
Riverhead Books
Publication date:
04/28/2005
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Unputdownable."—Doris Lessing

"A beguiling narrative mosaic...bewitchingly written...mercilessly gripping."—The Times (London)

"First reaction: WOW! Second reaction: Read it."—Asian Week

"A beautifully composed and memorable story...A first book anyone who travels by fiction will want to read."—San Francisco Chronicle

Meet the Author

Tash Aw was born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia. He moved to England in his teens. This is his first novel.

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Harmony Silk Factory 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Witty, engaging and fascinating. I finished it within a day because I simply could not put the book down.
momoftwinsMM More than 1 year ago
Although I found narration through the eyes of different characters an interesting literary tool, I didn't enjoy the book. I couldn't get into the story and felt like I finished the book and ended up learning nothing. The story may have been more intriguing if some of it could have been told through Johnny's eyes. Tash Aw's writing is beautiful, rich and descriptive but the storytelling was poor and tedious to work through, in my opinion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the book twice and am still in the dark. Why and how did Peter betray Johnny? Was it because he escaped or went to Singapore during the war rather than stay around to look after Snow as he promised Johnny? And what secret did he tell Kunichika that he (Kunichika) didn't already know (that Johnny was a communist). His betrayal so caused Peter to almost welcome torture/punishment at Changi prison (to try to expiate his sins). But what did Peter really do to Johnny I don't know. Peter's narrative has such dark imagery I can't grasp. Also, is Jasper truly Johnny's son? The uncertainties or doubts are hinted here and there but there's no confirmation. Any enlightenment from anyone? Overall, a great debut novel, look forward to his next book. Stella