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Review of 'The Harmony Silk Factory' by Tash Aw

‘I’ve always been drawn to novels with complicated structures, richly textured stories that don’t reveal everything at first glance.’ – Tash Aw. The Harmony Silk Factory is notable for its tripartite structure – ‘Johnny’, ‘1941’, and ‘The Garden’. Each section is narrated by a different character and characterised by a different genre of writing: investigative research; a diary; memoir/confession. Which strand do you think is the most successful, and why?

The three parts are narrated by 1) Jasper, Johnny’s son 2) Snow, Johnny’s wife, and 3) Peter Wormwood, Johnny’s best friend. Although I didn’t love the character of Snow, I found the journal entries to be relatively compelling, though I had little interest in the chaperoned honeymoon. For some reason, Snow seems more in-the-minute than does the seedy Wormwood. However, I preferred the factual elements of Jasper’s strand. He seems to tell a fuller story, and one that is not limited to a few events only. His historical recollections seem more readable.

How does Aw modulate language, technique, syntax, sentence structure in each? Is there, in your opinion, enough differentiation between the voices of the novel’s narrators?

The use of the diary for Snow (with “Still no sign of Honey” short sentences), the use of the posthumous reflection on his father’s history for Jasper (and resultant semi-respectful thoughts of his father), and the rambling, over-exaggerated drunken Wormwood’s obsessiveness do differentiate to some extent. However, it was difficult at the beginning of each section, particularly the final one, to understand who was speaking and this did detract from the overall effect of the novel.

How does each strand relate to the others? Is the ‘implied reader’ of each strand the same?

The implied reader of Snow’s diary, is herself. It doesn’t read like a journal aimed at as-yet-unknown ancestors, or ramblings laid down for non-specific posterity. Jasper’s gives his account in order to make history aware of the true nature of his father, therefore he speaks to those in the future regarding the past. The implied reader of Wormwood could be the entire audience for a staged tragedy. Jasper is telling us what actually happened and justifying why he hates his dad, Snow is giving details of events in her life, and Wormwood is romanticising the past in nostalgic ramblings.

How do we evaluate the reliability of each strand?

Jasper has a point to prove, as does Snow. Wormwood has a life story to back up. As such, all are reliable to each character. But whether they tell the ‘true’ story or not, is a different matter.

To what extent does each strand ‘reveal’ the personality of its narrator (Jasper, Snow, Peter), as well as those of its central characters?

Jasper is bitter, confused. Snow is introspective and a bit sneaky. Peter is flamboyant and a dreamer. Yes each strand does reveal the personalities of the writers, best in the first and last, less strongly with Snow as her journal is less retrospective story telling and more reflective of the way the character feels at that moment in time.

Finally, why does Aw arrange the novel in this way, in your opinion? The novel is arranged in this way, likely because we would feel far differently if the last section became the first. We would see Johnny as a romantic anti-hero rather than as the very flawed and unstable human being he clearly was. Also, the historical section does need to come first to give a context in time and space. Snow’s section seems to fit perfectly in the middle. She is writing in the present and the others are writing of their pasts.

Zadie Smith’s NW shares some formal similarities with The Harmony Silk Factory: three lengthy ‘strands’, ordered serially (rather than recursively), with a voice, style and perspective peculiar to each strand. What else might this comparison reveal? Do you feel that one novel combines these features more convincingly or successfully that the other? Do these similarities produce the same results/effects?

In addition to the comparisons already mentioned regarding Harmony Silk and NW, I noted a few others. In particular, the sense of time and place is strong in both, as is the need for escape from surroundings which may not be sympathetic for the characters.

Also, like Johnny, Natalie was neither saint nor out-and-out sinner (certainly Wormwood seems to have seen the good in him more than others might). Another connection I felt between both books, and others probably won’t agree with – “As in NW, the language, dialogue etc was good, but the whole book just didn’t appeal to me.

How important is the order in which we meet the narrators? How might the novel have altered had Aw elected to reorder these long chapters? How might the novel have been altered had the narratives appeared recursively and in smaller sections?

Jasper’s section gives the character of Johnny a contemporary stance, and also allows the reader to connect a little with Johnny as a villain. The other two sections do not allow for as much connection or empathy. It is interesting how, when the story arrives with us in chunks, we fit right into that mind set for a substantial period of time. Then, the chunk changes and our attitude changes also.

A small cast of characters (Johnny, Honey, Peter, Snow, Kunichika) reappear throughout the novel. Does Aw reproduce these characters consistently from one section to the next? What risks might this approach run in terms of character development?

I did not feel that the characters were consistent. In fact, in many ways they were also not strongly drawn at all. For example, Peter and Honey became interchangeable to me, and it was only in the final section, when Wormwood got his voice, that I realised who and what he was.

For example, Kunichika’s character (and Snow’s reaction to him) do not seem similarly drawn in the different sections. He is described as a scholar as well as a vicious killer. Snow appears as an angel, an adulteress, confused, a child, and a responsible woman. Johnny is a bad man but also a good enough man to warrant Wormwood planting a garden in his memory: all this for a gangster, an inscrutable businessman, communist and textile merchant. Each of his narrators sees him differently.

The Hickling article says that “Aw makes a credible job of modulating the varying tones of voice by which the smiling villain of the first part comes to be seen as the weeping cuckold of the third”. The inconsistency of the representation is not particularly dangerous. Most readers are mature and experienced enough to know that narrators are largely unreliable and at best are subjectively reliable.

In your opinion, how important is it that the reader of HSF has some prior knowledge of Malaysia? How successfully does the novel introduce its world to the reader? How vital to the novel’s story is its setting? Might this approach pose any challenges to the reader or the writer?

I have no prior knowledge of Malaysia or of its social and political history and neither do I tend to find books of this type to be particularly gripping. In this novel, the story’s setting both in time and place is quite essential: the travelling fabric seller, the social insecurity etc. The challenges I would think relate mainly to the lack of empathy of understanding from those readers who know nothing of Malaysia. On a related point, I thought it interesting that neither Snow nor Wormwood were involved in the Harmony Silk Factory’s brothel story. I had expected this setting to be a major one for the entire plot especially as the book’s cover displays a beautiful woman with a flower in her hair, looking seductively over her shoulder. In reality, the setting is not the brothel, it is about the valley, the country, the islands and the boat, and, once Jasper finishes telling his tale, it almost feels as if the Harmony Silk Factory never existed. So, the factory is more of a starting point than a backdrop which permeates the entire story. I didn’t find this particularly satisfying.

On a related point, how important to the novel is the time in which it is set? How essential is the novel’s primary setting during the Second World War to its plot? To what extent is The Harmony Silk Factory a work of historical fiction?

Historical fiction is a genre of writing where both plot and setting are located within the past.

The book is mainly set in Malaysia before the Japanese invasion (true place, true events), but the story (being fiction) also inserts made-up events, characters and places to this truthful framework. As such, this is therefore a work of historical fiction, as well as one of conjecture, fantasy and imagination. It’s interesting that so much is going on but it is not a crucial part of the story. The “demise of colonial rule in Malaya, the fledgling rise of communism, the impending Japanese occupation. Nothing is set. Neither the circumstances of the story, nor the characters” (from a Goodreads review). The setting in time and place is crucial, but any accuracies don’t make it a better or stronger story.

To varying extents, all three strands revolve around Johnny Lim. How consistent was the portrait of Johnny throughout the novel? Given the extent to which Johnny is described by the three narrators, how complete was your sense of the character? Did you respond to this feature of the novel? What might Aw have been trying to achieve?

The character of Johnny was definitely not consistent. He is variously described as innocent, sweet, interesting, criminal, violent, psychopathic etc. I feel that Aw was trying give the readers an awareness of the characters narrating more than the characters being described. I am unsure about this feature of the novel, though it almost felt that the reader was being treated as a gullible bystander, so it did wind me up a little. I agree more with Hickling’s comment about the book’s “maddening inconsistency” more than its “mysterious appeal”.

Johnny, like all the other characters, was unlikeable, no matter who related his tale.

What other themes does Aw foreground in the novel, and how does he do this?

Hinkling believes that it is the binding image of silk that holds the book together. I can understand why he might write this, but I did not feel it at all. It is interesting that the character the story revolves around is not allowed a narration of his own – intentionally, as I am guessing that this is about the way that one person can be perceived differently by everyone he encounters, even himself.

The themes of the novel include love, hate, betrayal, obsession and greed. The author displays this by having all three narrators take independent attitudes to these themes. According to Time magazine, the book is a “tale of love and betrayal that transcends mere location". Again, I do not entirely agree, and all the themes are not of equal strength, just as not all the writing is equally compelling.

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