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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Harmony Silk Factory

Tash Aw

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Harmony Silk Factory

Title: The Harmony Silk Factory
Author: Tash Aw
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 378 pages
Availability: The Harmony Silk Factory - US
The Harmony Silk Factory - UK
The Harmony Silk Factory - Canada
The Harmony Silk Factory - India
Le tristement célèbre Johnny Lim - France
Die Seidenmanufaktur Zur schönen Harmonie - Deutschland
La vera storia di Johnny Lim - Italia
La fábrica de sedas - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging story, fairly well told, but ultimately too many characters remain unfocussed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 18/6/2005 Marian McCarthy
FAZ . 9/6/2006 Alexandra Kedves
The Guardian . 26/3/2005 Alfred Hickling
The Independent . 11/3/2005 Anita Sethi
NZZ . 16/8/2006 Irene Binal
The Observer . 31/7/2005 Helen Zaltzman
San Francisco Chronicle . 3/4/2005 Alan Cheuse
Sunday Times B 6/3/2005 Maggie Gee
The Times . 26/2/2005 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 23/5/2005 Homa Khaleeli

  Review Consensus:

  Generally favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Written with style and confidence, this refusal to tie-up loose ends is one of the book's many strengths. Each section lays down its narrative tracks and over the course of the novel these tracks crisscross -- always adding to the picture but never completing it. Throughout there is the idea that with death everything is erased -- all traces and memories of the lives lived." - Marian McCarthy, The Age

  • "Tash Aws vielstimmiges Malaysia-Porträt beginnt mit kühlen, kraftvollen Tönen, zirpt allerdings etwas schwach auf der Brust, als Snow zu Wort kommt. Immerhin kompensiert der Autor dies hier mit der Spannung einer Abenteuerfahrt samt amourösen Verstrickungen." - Alexandra Kedves, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "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. But unreliable narration is a tired old trope now, and the reader is left to make up his or her own mind whether the obfuscation and contradictions inherent in this three-cornered portrait of Johnny Lim are a product of the book's maddening inconsistency, or its mysterious appeal." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Tash Aw skilfully highlights the limitations of individual perspective, as each narrator forces a reappraisal of Johnny's character. (...) Silk -- the novel's seductive if unsubtle leitmotif -- is woven throughout in literal and metaphorical images. (...) The vice-like grip of the dead, the paper-thin ties of the living: many compelling themes are braided into this original, haunting novel. Aw picks at the knots in relationships, and in Malaysia's history, to unravel strands of illumination. Yet there are several loose ends from which readers must spin their own stories." - Anita Sethi, The Independent

  • "Das ambitionierte Schattenspiel aus Lüge und Wahrheit leidet freilich unter gravierenden Schwächen, die in den beiden letzten Teilen des Romans offensichtlich werden. Tash Aw kann das grandiose Tempo des ersten Abschnitts nicht durchhalten" - Irene Binal, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Aw's debut novel is haunting and highly impressive." - Helen Zaltzman, The Observer

  • "(A) beautifully composed and memorable story about life and death in this, for us, still rather distant part of the world." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The theme of surface appearance belied by deeper reality is so relentlessly explored that it becomes schematic (...) (T)he crisp promise of the initial narrating voice has not quite been fulfilled. Nevertheless, this book begins with such brio that Tash Aw’s second outing will be eagerly awaited." - Maggie Gee, Sunday Times

  • "The answers are almost incidental to the process of querying. In fact, Johnny, protagonist only nominally, remains as mysterious a lacuna in the end as he was in the beginning, a mirror for reflecting the various narrators’ personalities, biases, unreliabilities. (...) In one way it’s a thin book in the sense that it doesn’t shake up the pattern of life to show us something startlingly new, but the story Aw tells is mercilessly gripping and his prose is lucid, uncluttered, beautiful." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "The strength of Tash Aw's writing can be seen in the three narratives. Each voice is distinct and each offers a subtly different viewpoint, remaking the material afresh." - Homa Khaleeli, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Harmony Silk Factory is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character, presenting a different perspective on events. Aw has a nice touch with the voices, and the stories related in each part are fairly compelling, but while there are secrets that are hinted at and then revealed Aw doesn't always focus on what's most compelling, the book building up to dénouements that are, in some cases, of limited interest, while not adequately addressing the most significant questions.
       The first section is narrated by Jasper, the bitter son of the famous Johnny Lim. Johnny was the biggest man in the Malaysian backwater he had made his own. His death brings Jasper back for the funeral, and he recounts the story of Johnny -- or at least his rise.
       Jasper makes clear from the first that Johnny was not a good man: a liar and a criminal with headquarters at the Harmony Silk Factory, Johnny may have had a (reasonably) good popular image, but hardly deserved it. Jasper doubted the veracity of his father's stories, as well as the popular legends around him, and apparently set out to find the truth, spending years reading:

every single article in every book, newspaper, and magazine that mentions my father, in order to understand the real story of what happened.
       It's an odd approach to discovering the truth -- public records of this sort, especially in backwaters not well covered by the press, surely yield relatively little reliable information as well -- but that's what Jasper has to offer. He doesn't, however, leave it just at that, adding his own very personally coloured embellishments, based on his own memory and his feelings about his dad. This reconstruction of Johnny's life, especially before Jasper's birth (the focus of his attention) isn't really plausible, but at least it is a decent story.
       Johnny apparently managed to make his way in the world with considerable ease, luck, and talent. A convenient death (where -- unrealistically -- absolutely no one appears to consider the obvious, that Johnny was the murderer) set him up with his first shop. Later he married well, into the Soong family (an upper-class family he doesn't really fit in among), and eventually orchestrated another crime to re-position himself in the family. A sometime Communist, he apparently realised that the threat from the Japanese in World War II was greater than the locals were willing to imagine, and he prepared himself for that as well. His truly spectacular success was built on how he survived World War II, and for that he committed the most horrific of betrayals -- though unrealistically almost no one seemed to even consider the possibility that Johnny might be responsible for what happened (as the only survivor he was obviously suspect).
       Jasper offers a decent portrait of his father, a mysterious, larger-than-life figure of humble origins. Yet despite the documentary approach, much remains mysterious: Johnny is a complex, shy, almost unassuming figure, and many of his successes seem entirely out of character (i.e. Aw does not reconcile the person with the deeds). Disappointing, also, is the Harmony Silk Factory, that awful centre of his criminal activities after the war; it remains almost purely symbolic, as Johnny's life and deeds there aren't a very big part of the story: almost the entire book focusses on Johnny's life before and in the 1940s, how he became the man he was, and not who he actually then was.
       Jasper's narrative -- the first part of the book -- ends after Johnny's funeral, when an Englishman gives him a parcel. The second part of the novel then presents the contents of the parcel, Snow Soong's diary from 1941. Snow was Johnny's wife and Jasper's mother (dying in childbirth), and her first-person narrative offers a different perspective of Johnny -- except that Johnny isn't quite as central in her account, as is then also the case in the third part of the novel, narrated by Peter, the Englishman who gave Jasper the diary. Peter's account moves back and forth between the present and the past, with the events described in Snow's diary also the central episodes.
       Snow and Johnny are married by the time her diary begins, but she is not really happy with the state of affairs. Together with a Japanese academic -- in fact, a high government official preparing the way for the brutal Japanese occupation in the area -- and two Englishmen -- Peter and a man named Honey -- they set off on a sort of honeymoon-trip. The destination is an island, and they have quite a few adventures in getting there.
       Not everyone is quite who they appear to be, and there are odd personal chess games going on. Not surprisingly, murder and -- far worse -- betrayal occur.
       Seeing the story from two different perspectives -- Snow and Peter's first-person accounts -- is quite interesting, and Aw nicely moves the light from one account to the next, illuminating events in different ways, revealing new bits of the puzzle (and showing that for all of Jasper's efforts, not all the truth was revealed in the sources he relied on). The voices are captured quite well, and many of the scenes are nicely done -- especially Johnny among the Soongs and some of the island-adventures. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that Johnny remains such a cipher: both Snow and Peter capture how ill at ease he could be, but neither really conveys much understanding of what might be going on in that head of his (or what he really feels about his wife). This also undermines one of the central parts of the book, Johnny being co-opted by Kunichika (the Japanese man, who would later be remembered as 'the Monster of Kampar' ...).
       The second and third parts of the novel are personal accounts and so, realistically, the focus is on the respective person doing the accounting. Each is interesting enough, but the switch is more distracting than helpful -- leaving Johnny just one character among too many, and not allowing it to fully be his story.
       Oddly, none of the characters in the novel are fully realised, with even Snow and Peter remaining figures whose central purpose seems only to have been to have figured in Johnny's life -- but since Johnny himself is not satisfactorily explained the entire book is less than entirely satisfying. Aw ultimately doesn't seem to have fully come to grips with the material (perhaps also explaining the different-points-of-view approach).
       Still: well-told, consistently engaging (if, ultimately, to too little end) The Harmony Silk Factory is a good, enjoyable read.

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The Harmony Silk Factory: Reviews: Tash Aw: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tash Aw (originally: Aw Ta-Shii) was born in Taiwan and grew up in Malaysia and England, where he now lives.

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© 2005-2023 the complete review

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