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Novel set in SINGAPORE 1941-1963

28th March 2023

The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng, novel set in Singapore 1941-1963.

The Great Reclamation is a love story: the love of a man for a woman, and the love of a people for their country.

The novel is a coming-of-age tale of a boy from a poor fishing village in Singapore. This narrative runs in parallel with the story of the birth of a self-determining Singapore, free from British rule. Lee Ah Boon is the shy boy, whose family are fishermen but who is afraid of the sea. On his first fishing trip with his father and brother he discovers a mysterious, uncharted island and the family are blessed with a huge catch of fish. This miracle makes Boon precious to the fishermen, who need him to guide them to the islands. But Boon’s mother wants more for him than the daily grind of working on the family’s fishing boat. She sends him to school, setting him on a path that will change the course of his life in many ways. Boon’s future becomes inextricably connected with that of his community and his country.

In school, Boon meets the beautiful and charismatic Siok Mei, a little girl who already knows what she wants. While still very young they swear to be together forever, and a partnership is forged between them. The characters of the two children complement each other and they seem destined to succeed together. But real life, war and change get in the way. Siok Mei develops a strong political conscience and Boon must decide how far to follow her in his own commitment to the cause.

The Great Reclamation is an extraordinarily engaging and moving book. It is rich in details of everyday life in rural Singapore; the flora and fauna, the sights and sounds of the kampong (village). We learn about the fishing traditions and beliefs of the villagers and the reasons that they might be resistant to changes that come from outside. As Boon and Mei grow older, we learn more about city life in Singapore, as they move outside the kampong and explore.

The book has a theme of unspoken love, both between family members and between Boon and Mei: the “invisible tide that always drew them back together”. We see the strong emotional bonds that are challenged as situations beyond their control make demands on all of them in different ways. There are also passionate emotions that are buried for many years but which inevitably re-surface. I felt deeply involved and moved by accounts of the shifting relationships between the characters and feel sure they will stay with me now that I’ve finished the book.

On another level, The Great Reclamation is also an account of how a country makes progress “from third world to first” and the sacrifices that are involved. We see what is lost along the way, from the lives of protestors to the innocence of children and rural communities. The transformation of Singapore to the gleaming city-state that joined Malaysia in 1963 is seen as a triumph but one that had enormous implications for its rural communities.

The plot is beautifully crafted, with an ending that brings us around to the beginning again in a really satisfying and moving way. Thoroughly recommended if you’ve already been to Singapore because you’re bound to gain a deeper insight into the country, and also if you’re planning a trip.

Sue for the TripFiction Team

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