The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan review – rich Malaysian second world war saga | Fiction

The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan review – rich Malaysian second world war saga | Fiction

Set in Malaysia between 1935 and 1945, Vanessa Chan’s impressive and assured debut offers a little-told perspective on a turbulent period of history. Inspired by her own grandparents’ experiences under British colonial rule and Japanese occupation during the second world war, Chan – who lives in the US – captures the hope and the hardships of this extraordinary decade.

In 1930s Kuala Lumpur, Cecily is a bored wife and mother seduced by the personal allure of a Japanese general, Fujiwara, and by his vision of “an Asia for Asians”. It’s a stark contrast to her husband’s middle-manager obsequiousness towards the British, and Chan captures the silky racism within the hierarchies of colonial rule, where Malaysians could only ever be second-class citizens in their own country.

Cecily becomes an unlikely spy – but when the Japanese invasion proves utterly brutal, tearing apart her family, she’s gripped by guilt for her secret involvement in it.

Many of Chan’s characters are occupied by the question of what makes a “good” or “bad” person. But any verdict seems always to change, the answer shifting when considered from different perspectives, or from different traumatising contexts. What sounds good in a promise may turn out to be extremely bad in hindsight.

This is a rich, multiperspective novel – we follow Cecily’s three children too – and is unflinching on the horrors of occupation: scenes in a labour camp are stomach-turningly harrowing. But The Storm We Made is no slog to read: Chan has crafted a cleverly braided plot that is taut with tension and hugely satisfying. It sweeps you up, so that you easily go with most of its wild, almost Dickensian twists and coincidences.

And her writing is beautiful: equally sumptuous in evoking the externals – the humidity and ripe scents of Malaysia – and in conveying her characters’ burning inner desires and frustrations. She’s especially good on the anger of women who feel powerless, and the self-destructive resentment that ripples through oppressed peoples. When beaten down by hunger, violence and grief, redemption cannot always be seized.

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