In a quotation reproduced on the front cover of The Harmony Silk Factory, Doris Lessing claims that Tash Aw is a fine storyteller, his work "unputdownable". Clearly Doris is confused. Unlikely as it sounds, there must be some other Tash Aw whose books are "unputdownable", because this particular book, by this particular Tash Aw, is eminently putdownable, and once put down is nigh on unpickupable. Yes, it is well-written in a clean, plain style, and there is the occasional interesting patch. Mostly, though, it is dull and passionless, and rather a slog to read.
Set in Malaya in the 1930s and '40s, The Harmony Silk Factory is the story of Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant who, through a mixture of ingenuity and ruthlessness, becomes a successful cloth merchant. As a sideline, Lim also heads the local communist guerilla army, and when the Japanese invade in 1941, Lim is torn between his many loyalties, and survival becomes intertwined with betrayal.
The story is told in three parts. In the first part, Lim's son pieces together a rough outline of Lim's wartime activities. The second part consists of a diary kept by Lim's wife, Snow, on their belated honeymoon. Finally, Peter Wormwood, a British dilettante who befriended the couple just prior to the outbreak of war, recounts the fateful events of 1941, filling in many of the gaps in the preceding accounts.
Aw does a good job of tying together the various threads of the story. Unfortunately, the three narrative voices are too similar to be convincing. The main problem, though, is that Johnny Lim's story is simply not stimulating enough to sustain one's interest. Aw seems to have realised this, hence the elaborate structure, and the inclusion of a good deal of incidental detail, or "padding" as the uncharitable (i.e. me) would call it. Overall, The Harmony Silk Factory is not a bad novel, merely unremarkable.