Title/Author: We, the Survivors by Tan Twan Eng
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In a nutshell (Publisher):
Ah Hock is an ordinary man of simple means. Born and raised in a Malaysian fishing village, he favors stability above all, a preference at odds with his rapidly modernizing surroundings. So what brings him to kill a man?
This question leads a young, privileged journalist to Ah Hock’s door. While the victim has been mourned and the killer has served time for the crime, Ah Hock’s motive remains unclear, even to himself. His vivid confession unfurls over extensive interviews with the journalist, herself a local whose life has taken a very different course. The process forces both the speaker and his listener to reckon with systems of power, race, and class in a place where success is promised to all yet delivered only to its lucky heirs.
An uncompromising portrait of an outsider navigating a society in transition, Tash Aw’s anti-nostalgic tale, We, the Survivors, holds its tension to the very end. In the wake of loss and destruction, hope is among the survivors.
Verdict: An introspective, heartbreaking and affecting read
Ah Hock narrates his story before and after his life in prison to Su-Min, a sociology postgraduate, who’s planning to write a book about him.
The narration doesn’t take us directly to what happened on that fateful night of the murder, instead it detours and looks back at Ah Hock’s life as a teenager with his mother in a hardscrabble backwater village called Bagan Sungai Yu in Kuala Selangor in Malaysia where he became ‘friends’ with Keong, a wannabe gangster; and his life when he moved to Kuala Lumpur, secured himself a more stable job and got married.
Then one day, Keong, after ‘disappearing’ from his life for 10 years, called him out of the blue. Just like that, Ah Hock’s life took a wild turn. He tried avoiding Keong, but Fate kept pulling him back. To be connected to someone like Keong is like a curse, nothing good ever comes out of it. And sure enough, it landed Ah Hock in jail.
This book made me reminisce those good old days growing up in one of the small states in Malaysia; having school friends who were just like Keong, gangster wannabes, some of whom were small-time ones, openly boasting about their ‘gangs’; my mom and I buying ‘biscuits’ (crackers) stored in metal tins that filled half of Ah Leong’s shop, and my grandma who kept cash in biscuit tins because she hadn’t yet trust the banks. Ah…those were the days. Oh and not to mention the Bersih rally! I was there with my dad, my husband and a few of my friends.
Sorry, I digressed. Through Ah Hock, we get a glimpse of the lives of migrants who flee to Malaysia hoping for greener pastures only to realize it’s not that different here. The plague of poverty, sickness, discrimination, class, racism stuck to them like glue, just like the many other low-income non Bumiputras.
‘We were the wrong race, the wrong religion – who was going to give us any help? Not the government , that’s for sure.’
Everyone fighting for their own piece of pie, which isn’t very big. It’s a dog eat dog world. Only the tough will survive.
Reading this book made me question morality and survival; how far one would go to be the last one standing – what made Ah Hock strike that innocent man? He was a man of morals, always trying to do the right thing, abiding the law, and yet, he was in prison for killing. Why not Keong who never thought twice about breaking the law?
‘No one can alter the course of things. Your karma is set, it determines everything.’
It also made me take a deeper look at the lives of the migrant workers I see at construction sites and their dilapidated homes by the side of the roads, and people at the bottom of the social ladder (like the Indians on the plantations whom ‘We seldom spoke about, except to say how miserable their fate was. Poor black devils, dead but not dead – repeating these kinds of expressions made us feel that by comparison we were comfortable and easy.’ ) whose lives are invisible to the rest of the society, and how much of my own life is taken for granted. Their stories were so well written it felt as though the author has walked in their shoes.
And this quote struck me,
‘It’s all these migrant workers we let in. They’re the ones who commit all the crimes.’
It’s so easy to blame everything on them but ‘.. statistically, foreign workers commit only 10 per cent of all crimes in the country.‘
“Yeah, just go and pretend to be revolutionaries, if it makes you feel better. You’re crazy if you think you’ll change anything.”
If we believed that, imagine where we would be today. Let’s continue to be crazy and believe in change.
I love books that make me reflect, and explore important, timely (and timeless) themes, and this is one of those which I’m going to treasure. What a fantastic book written by yet another masterful storyteller.
Now looking back while reviewing this novel, there wasn’t anything that I disliked about it.
Thank you Netgalley and FSG books for a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!
Last but not least, thank you for stopping by! May the power of good books be with you always!