Lead Review; and chatting to Philip Tatham, founder of Monsoon Books
- Book: Bamboo Heart
- Location: London, Penang, Singapore, Thailand
- Author: Ann Bennett
I was of the generation that grew up with the 1980s TV series Tenko, set in a women’s labour camp run by the Japanese. The female prisoners were all picked up after the fall of Singapore in 1942 and kept in terrible conditions, forgotten by the British War Office, and subjected to ordeals beyond the imagination.
For a later generation this trilogy of Southeast Asian World War II novels (the third due out 2017) will be an eye opening insight into the trials that previous generations endured on the Thai – Burma railway, otherwise known as the Death Railway, built by prisoners to move Japanese supplies into Burma to aid their war effort.
Set mainly in Thailand and Malaysia, it is the heart wrenching story of Tom, volunteering to join the defence lines in Malaysia, captured, and held prisoner. Before the war, he chose to leave the city in London and oversee a rubber plantation in Malaysia and life was pretty good – he embarked on an affair with a married woman, but soon found his heart captured by Joy, a young Eurasian woman. And it is his love for her that sustains him through terrible ordeals in the camp, his humanity nevertheless in tact even when it comes to facing his nemesis in the form of an english racketeer, on the make at the expense of the well-being of others captives.
Forward to London of the 1980s and his daughter Laura is tending her father, as he is ill. It is clear that he is suffering a condition called Bamboo Heart, the eponymous title of the book, physical after-effects of sustained malnutrition and starvation. She has never heard her father’s story, so determines to find out more by travelling to the Far East. She is in an on/off relationship with Luke, who, with one ill considered action too far prompts her – just like her father – to consider what she too must do in the face of immoral behaviour.
Setting is very strong and is redolent of the tropics. A great book to get a feel of footsteps past if you are visiting Malaysia.
This is an extremely readable and confidently written book and it is a shame I didn’t pick it up sooner. I think for me, the book has a jacket which just didn’t attract me, it seems dull and old fashioned rather than a modern book recreating the period. Of course, however, never judge a book by its cover (although I have said many times before that the cover is the first thing that catches a reader’s eye and therefore has a blink in which to do so!).
Highly recommended. Each book in the trilogy can be read as a standalone.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Over to Philip Tatham of Monsoon Books, specialising in books set in Southeast Asia.
My decision to specialize in publishing books on Southeast Asia is a direct result of reading for an undergraduate degree in Indonesian literature, but can be traced further back to my childhood. In the early 1970s I attended preschool for a year in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and upon returning to the UK was fed stories by expats on leave from posts throughout Asia. I distinctly recall as a youngster a family friend, a rubber planter, describing golden orioles in his garden in Malaysia and me thinking that sounded very exotic. I ended up living in Singapore and Malaysia for twenty years.
One of my personal favourite books to have come out of the region in the last few years, albeit by a Malaysian author based in South Africa, is “The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng. Another award-winning writer of Malaysian heritage producing great fiction is Tash Aw, author of “The Harmony Silk Factory”, “Map of the Invisible World” and “Five Star Billionaire”. The next wave of young authors to look out for include Singapore’s O Thiam Chin and Indonesia’s Eka Kuniarwan.
Of course, there are a number of classics from the region, written by Southeast Asian authors and western authors resident in Southeast Asia, which are always worth revisiting. It took Monsoon five years to track the remaining family of deceased British author Jack Reynolds down to Bangkok and, with their permission, we republished “A Woman of Bangkok”, described by the Asian Wall Street Journal as “Among the ten finest novels written about Asia”. Acknowledged today as one of the most memorable novels about Thailand, “A Woman of Bangkok” was first published to critical acclaim in London and New York in the 1950s and is a classic of Bangkok fiction.
Monsoon publishes books that are set in Southeast Asia and written by authors from the all over the world. We have curated a fascinating list of colonial and military memoirs that spans two world wars, the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi. These social histories are more approachable than academic textbooks and offer invaluable insight into the history of the region. In “Out in the Midday Sun: the British in Malaya 1880-1960”, Malaya-born historian Margaret Shennan cleverly weaves personal anecdotes from British colonials in pre-independence Malaysia and Singapore through the text thus bringing to life the daily exploits of expats and locals at the time.
Military memoirs are always in demand and, at time of writing, “You’ll Die in Singapore” by Charles McCormac, ranks #1 on Amazon UK’s “Travel / Asia” bestseller list. “You’ll Die in Singapore” is the true story of how 17 British and Australian POWs made a 2,000-mile, 5-month escape from a Japanese POW camp in Pasir Panjang, Singapore, through Indonesia to Australia. Just as incredible are stories about British spies who stayed behind in Malayan jungles during the Japanese Occupation. In “Malayan Spymaster” author Boris Hembry recounts how he would enter Malaya by submarine from Ceylon and make contact with the likes of war hero Freddy Spencer Chapman, while in the biography “Our Man in Malaya” author Margaret Shennan reveals how Britain used Jon Davis, another member of the clandestine services, to engage with Chin Peng, Britain’s chief postwar enemy in the long Communist struggle for the soul of Malaya.
Fiction is no less important a vehicle for Monsoon to introduce readers to a particular place or period of time. Billed as “Singapore’s most passionate series of historical fiction” the four books that comprise The Straits Quartet, written by former Singapore expat Dawn Farnham, offer romance and 19thC. Singapore history in equal measure. Author Han Suyin caused a huge fracas in the 1950s when the release of her novel “And the Rain my Drink” maligned the British administration during the Malayan Emergency. The Monsoon edition of this novel features an “insider interview” with Han’s former husband, then a British Special Branch officer in Malaya, whose job became untenable following the book’s publication.
In “Bamboo Heart”, “Bamboo Island” and “Bamboo Road” (2017 release), a trilogy of WWII historical fiction that may be read in any order, British author Ann Bennett takes readers to 1940s and present-day Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and explores issues of love and loss in moving prose.
My aim is for Monsoon to bring Southeast Asian history and culture to life in print and ebook form for the enjoyment of readers worldwide.
This review and chat to Philip Tatham originally appeared on our blog