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The Harmony Silk Factory Hardcover – March 31, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Malaysian-British Aw makes an impressive contribution to a literature for which Conrad and Maugham are famous in the story of an audacious, successful Malaysian businessman during World War II. In 1940, Lim Seng Chin, 20-year-old descendant of poor, illiterate southern Chinese laborers transported as mine workers by the British in the late nineteenth century, renames himself Johnny Lim after the local film industry's Tarzan. He has an admirable aptitude for machinery but is blamed for mechanical failures, after which, as a shop clerk, he boldly unloads a lot of cheap Chinese gauze and unsellable batik onto a wealthy white customer by convincing her of its (dubious) value. Thereby he launches himself in the Tiger Brand Trading Company, which he buys in 1942 and renames the Harmony Silk Factory. Via Aw's fast-moving prose and shimmering dialogue, which has an odd, affecting noirish manner, three different accounts of Johnny Lim and varying views of historic and personal reality unfold while the Japanese invade, the Communist Party gathers momentum, and alliances are made and broken. Whitney Scott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (March 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 157322300X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573223003
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #917,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Dangle's girl on May 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Stop the publishing industry, I want to get off! By shoveling out tons of derivative crap like Nicole Krauss' "History of Love," real gems are getting overlooked. Despite the off-putting title, "Harmony Silk Factory" is one such gem, a very pleasant surprise that much outperforms the ritualistic pap that's come to dominate so much "Asian-American fiction." Tash Aw is a truly gifted writer who manages to weave together fascinating tidbits of Malaysia's history and culture with the story of a screwed-up family. Best of all, he tells the story in the voice of a terrific, stereotype-busting character-a pedantic, vain and genuinely funny riff on a dutiful son, a kind of Tristram Shandy who finds himself in Southeast Asia. None of these all-wise, all-suffering stock characters who have come to dominate this psuedo-genre. Aw is a great talent, and I hope he finds the readers he deserves. Please try this book!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By lisatheratgirl VINE VOICE on September 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is the underlying theme of this extraordinary first novel set in WWII era Malaya. Don't expect a book about contemporary Malaysia. The story revolves around Johnny Lim, as told by his son, his wife, and a British man who settles in Malaya/Malaysia and remains for the rest of his life. If you are looking for the absolute truth about Johnny or the other characters, you are not likely to find it. Each story is told from an individual perspective, leaving the reader with completely different ideas, but the truth may be made up of all these different pieces of information. The first story is told in a straightforward manner by the son, who sees his father as a criminal psychopath with no feelings for anyone else. The story told by the wife is like walking further and further inside a surrealist painting. It was hard to know what was fantasy and what was reality. The third story resolves some of this, but adds surprisingly new twists. The description and use of language is stunningly beautiful. I was reminded of The Hamilton Case in reading about the physical and psychological effects the jungle has--including in this book what it feels like having a poisonous snake land on your shoulder and take a bite of you before you know what's happening. The names have meanings, some of which are not apparent until the end (Snow, Honey, Jasper, Wormwood). And what really is the Harmony Silk Factory? Although it starts out like a literal plot kind of book, it really also is not what it appears. Keep an open mind and don't be fooled by the style of the first part. I think this author is wonderfully talented and hope he will be coming out with more novels. I would say definitely dont miss this one.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By TylerBaber on August 10, 2006
Format: Paperback
At the end of the introduction, The Harmony Silk Factory's first narrator Jasper declares emphatically that he is "ready to give [us] this, `The True Story of the Infamous Chinaman Called Johnny." In the story Johnny was the merchant owner of the title's business, as well as the most important man in the Malayan Kinta valley. According to Jasper, Johnny was a bootlegger, a cheat, a murderer, a Communist, and a traitor, among other things. Johnny Lim was also Jasper's father. It is this connection that hints to the reader that this `true story' is not the `whole story.'

Tash Aw's first novel, actually his first work of published fiction in any format, examines the infamous Chinaman from three points of view: first the son Jasper attempts to cover most of his father's life, then Johnny's wife Snow records the events and thoughts on a holiday in a personal diary, and finally a geriatric English monk named Peter Wormwood reminisces on his past with Johnny. Yet although the three voices reveal what they can about Johnny part of him remains an unknowable mystery. While the character's relationships with Johnny become more intimate as the novel progresses Johnny becomes more mythical in the reader's mind.

Jasper, for instance, tells how his father was shot on the day Malaysian independence was finally declared in 1957. Because Johnny survives the assassination attempt people begin to say that he is invincible, otherworldly.

Aw has cultivated an elegant and tragic story over three distinct narrative voices, a story that is bigger than even the legends surrounding the Harmony Silk Factory's operator. The characters are all first exotic, like the jungles of the Malayan setting, but they become almost wonderfully known.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Barbara Lane on October 15, 2008
Format: Paperback
I love Malaysia been there many times and to so many of the towns that were mentioned so I REALLY WANTED TO LIKE THIS STORY.

The beginning was about Johnny Lim. His childhood to his crooked adults years had me fascinated. Worthy of a 5 star

The middle part was more about Johnny Lim's wife her disappointment that Johnny never wanted to make love to her.Her fascination with a Japanese man who spent a lot of time with them. This was slow and not overly interesting. Worthy of a 2 star

The ending was about repeating so many things that were already told in the middle but by Johnny's British friend's memory and views on them. Boring.
Worthy of a 1 star.

Overall I can't recommend this book even after that brilliant start. It was Tash Aw first novel and his following books hopfully will be more tightly woven together without repeating so many minor plots twice.
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