Book Of The Month

Family caught up in politics

Shawna Yang Ryan paints a painful portrait of Taiwan's dark history in her latest book

Green Island is the title of American author Shawna Yang Ryan's latest book and it aptly describes modern-day Taiwan, a verdant oasis sparkling in the East China Sea.

It also refers to a small isle off the island-state's south-eastern coast, a Guantanamo Bay of sorts, where political prisoners were detained and tortured by the Kuomintang (KMT) political party, which ruled mainland China between 1928 and 1947, and later retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949 to the Communist Party Of China.

The darker, lesser-known side of Taiwan's history comes to light in the book, a well-observed family drama which unfolds against a wider political backdrop.

Green Island is divided, roughly, into two time periods - the first part narrates the 1950s to the 1980s, an era when Taiwan was under the KMT's martial law rule.

The story opens with the unnamed narrator's birth on Feb 28, 1947, when a woman was beaten in the streets by the authorities for selling untaxed cigarettes.

  • FICTION

    GREEN ISLAND

    By Shawna Yang Ryan

    Knopf/Paperback/400 pages/From$24.80/Major bookstores/4.5 stars

This triggered an anti-government uprising by the Taiwanese, which the KMT attempted to crush by sending in troops to purge the society's intelligentsia - a period commonly referred to as the White Terror.

The protagonist's physician father, Dr Tsai, is arrested on suspicions of conspiring against KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek and imprisoned on Green Island for five years.

Ryan does not shy away from documenting the KMT's atrocities, including a barbaric practice of threading metal wire through detainees' flesh to bind them, "strung together like fish for market", which Dr Tsai is subject to.

One macabre yet effective scene is when the protagonist and her mother hire a boat and steer through a harbour of washed-up corpses to check if Dr Tsai is one of those drowned.

He eventually returns to his family, but remains traumatised by his time in jail.

As the protagonist observes of her father: "He was like a carefully pieced together eggshell delicately cupped in Mama's hands."

His constant paranoia of being tailed is realised one day when two agents blackmail him into convincing a defector to return - resulting in the defector's arrest.

The novel's second part is set in Berkeley, California, in the United States and spans the 1980s to the 2000s, as Taiwan begins its bumpy transition to democracy.

The protagonist is now married to Wei Lin, a liberal professor sympathetic to the fledgling freedom movement at home, who runs afoul of KMT proxies abroad.

The couple shelter Tang Jia Bao, a dissident seeking asylum from the KMT, and the protagonist finds herself caught between her husband and KMT agents who want them to hand over Jia Bao. To complicate things, she falls in love with Jia Bao.

He is killed despite their best efforts and the rest of the novel follows the protagonist as she returns to Taiwan to see her ailing parents, with her marriage on the verge of a meltdown.

Ryan, who is of mixed Taiwanese and American heritage, has always been interested in the Chinese diaspora. Her debut novel Water Ghosts (2010) explored the migrant experience and identity through the tale of three women who mysteriously turn up in a Chinese farming village on the Sacramento River.

In Green Island, which took her 14 years to complete, she paints a painful yet intensely moving portrait of Taiwan's formative years, when the all-powerful state continuously intruded upon daily life.

Ryan's prose is sweeping yet intimate.

She captures Taiwan's grand landscapes ("haphazard squares of shimmering black paddies and chartreuse taro fields") and observes her characters close up ("The heroes of revolution did not wear berets or belts of ammunition: They were stooped, middle-aged men with yellowed collars and nicotine-stained teeth.")

Every relationship portrayed is defined by the White Terror. The protagonist's sister Ah Zhay marries a mainlander husband, one of the many Nationalist soldiers fleeing to Taiwan, to the chagrin of their father who thinks he is an informant.

Despite the book's atmosphere of paranoia and terror, the protagonist's relationship with her father remains touching. Their love and understanding endure through the years, from the time she witnesses his first brush with KMT agents, to decades later, when they reunite at her dying mother's bedside.

In structuring her book, Ryan draws clear parallels between the past and the present, the personal and the political.

The protagonist is compelled to make the same choices her father faced, which is to choose between honour to one's country and devotion to one's family.

She intensifies the drama by setting her characters’ ordeals - separation, murder, torture, a miscarriage - against the gradual dissolution of Taiwan’s sovereignty, as it is first expelled from the United Nations in 1971, then later disowned by former ally the United States in 1979

In one chapter, scenes of the protagonist's emigration to America are spliced with then-US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the People's Republic of China (PRC), mirroring the personal crisis with the collective.

Till today, Taiwan remains a disputed territory, with the PRC recognising itself as the sole government of China.

At one point, the narrator asks herself: "What is home? Haven't I already come home?"

Indeed, Green Island's characters are constantly searching for home, even risking life and limb to find it. It is perhaps a vital concept to the Taiwanese, a people for whom often "the whole country existed in metaphor", as the protagonist puts it.

My only minor gripe with the book was that some plot twists in its second half feel a tad over the top, especially the protagonist's repetitive showdowns with her husband.

Still, it is an elegantly plotted narrative which ties together a riveting family drama with the troubled history of a Chinese diaspora still grappling with its national identity today. If you like this, read: The Third Son by Julie Wu (Algonquin Books, 2014, $24.97, Books Kinokuniya), a coming-of-age story in which a downtrodden Taiwanese boy grows up in Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s, and finds a new lease of life in America.


  • FICTION

    SHYLOCK IS MY NAME

    By Howard Jacobson

    Hogarth/Paperback/288 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

As imaginative as it is introspective, British author Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name transplants themes and characters from Shakespeare's Merchant Of Venice in modern-day Cheshire in England.

The novel, part of a series of Shakespeare retellings commissioned for the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death, is at its heart a study of identity.

Art collector and lapsed Jew Simon Strulovitch strikes up an unlikely friendship with a grieving Shylock, mourning the death of his wife Leah, and in sharp, biting conversations, they explore issues that still remain relevant centuries after Shakespeare's original play.

What does it mean to be a Jew? What do people expect from you? Will your Jewishness consume you if you let it define you?

Though smartly written, with enough wit to lift these heavy questions, the dialogue can at times be a hard slog.

But the book is saved by the sometimes-silly romcom unfolding in the Christian world, where Shakespeare's characters are reborn as flighty characters, casually anti-Semitic, and living in the soap opera world of the young, rich and famous.

Strulovitch's rebellious teenage daughter Beatrice eventually runs off with footballer Gratan (Gratiano), who gives Nazi salutes on the field.

They are helped along by Porsche-driving heiress and reality TV host Plurabelle (Portia) and art dealer D'Anton (Antonio).

Here is where the "pound of flesh" demand that anchors Shakespeare's Merchant Of Venice comes into play: Strulovitch wants Gratan to get circumcised if he wants to marry Beatrice.

Though Shylock is a solid, anchoring presence throughout the novel, he is a man now mellowed. It is Strulovitch who is the modern- day Shylock in his frustrations and machinations.

This book is not an instantly recognisable reworking of the original play.

Instead of a straightforward retelling, Jacobson picks apart the play and reassembles characters and themes - identity, anti- Semitism, vengeance, strained father-daughter ties - in the most unlikely of contemporary settings, which makes for a solid read.

If you like this, read: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, $26.72, Books Kinokuniya), a Pulitzer Prize- winning novel that sets Shakespeare's King Lear on an Iowa farm.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh


  • FICTION

    A MIDSUMMER’S EQUATION

    By Keigo Higashino

    Translated by Alexander O. Smith

    Little, Brown/Paperback/358 pages/$26.95/Books Kinokuniya/3 stars

If you need a thriller for your next beach holiday, Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino's most recently translated book gets the job done.

In A Midsummer's Equation, readers are transported to Hari Cove, a fading resort town whose untold riches, lying beneath its clear waters, are now eyed by developers. Environmentalists oppose this, afraid that deep-sea mining operations would wreck the coast.

A body is soon found, which local police first dismiss as a tragic accident.

But when they realise the victim is a former detective, Tokyo police barge in, starting a side plot about city-versus-small town ambitions. A murder investigation begins.

Almost every character in Higashino's clown car of a cast list appears to be a suspect.

But physicist Manabu Yukawa, nicknamed Detective Galileo and in town for a conference, handily solves the murder over the course of about 350 pages.

Like The Devotion Of Suspect X and Higashino's other works, there are enough twists and turns to keep thrill-seekers satisfied.

This time, translator Alexander O. Smith avoids the clunky translations that plagued 2014's Malice, although Higashino - like Swedish writer Stieg Larsson of Millennium trilogy fame, who he is often compared with - seems prone to over-writing.

Tediously long and inane bits of conversations are transcribed wholesale. How many "Okay, so, see you later"s do readers need?

So it is a pity that he neglects one of the biggest advantages that the written word offers: delving into the psyches of his characters.

Without this, understanding the motivation of the murderer requires one to suspend disbelief - lots of it.

The one exception is Yukawa's tender relationship with the preteen Kyohei, the neglected child sent away to his relatives' inn for the holidays and to whom the scientist plays father and friend.

Without giving the plot away, it is precisely this relationship that lends the book much-needed heft by hinting at themes such as the weight of guilt and a parent's love.

Sadly, these threads are mere wisps and the book is unable to make the jump from forgettable to memorable.

But A Midsummer's Equation need not be disregarded altogether. It is the literary equivalent of a Hollywood action movie: a little mindless, yes, but mostly fun.

If you like this, read: Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (Quercus Publishing, 2016, $29.65, Books Kinokuniya), about the cold case of an abducted girl who was never seen again.

Rachel Au-Yong


  • FICTION

    AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD

    By Tracy Chevalier

    The Borough Press/Paperback/291 pages/$26.75/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

In 1829, apple farmer James Goodenough uproots his family, moving them from Connecticut to the Black Swamp in Ohio to find a piece of land to call their own - and there their troubles begin.

Unlike the Connecticut apples James so lovingly grafts to Ohio's apple trees, the Goodenoughs cannot seem to sink their roots into the waterlogged swamp soil.

In her eighth novel, historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, who wrote The Girl With The Pearl Earring in 1999, returns on form with a riveting read on the harsh frontier life faced by American pioneers in the 1800s.

The protagonists are James - who loves his apple trees more than his family - and his dissatisfied, alcoholic wife Sadie, who has no qualms using her children to exact petty revenge on her husband.

The story also follows the fate of one of their sons, Robert, who flees westwards across America to escape his past, finally finding peace among the giant sequoia trees in the Californian wilderness.

True to their surname, Chevalier's main characters are neither saints nor demons, but just good enough to be believably human.

One cannot help but pity Sadie despite loathing her vile character or despise Robert for his lack of spirit while being glad that he has found a measure of peace in life.

Despite Chevalier's beautifully written, lyrical descriptions of the plants Robert finds on his journey - sequoias that "dwarfed a person with their girth" and "grasses browned from the long summer sun, broken by oases of green" - this is no American pastoral.

Instead, Chevalier manages to capture the tough, unsentimental attitude of the people of that time. Her tale is surprisingly gritty, especially in its casual brutality.

A domestic quarrel suddenly erupts into violence. James slaps Sadie, who responds "by going for him with her fists, and got in a jab to the side of his head before he... slapped her again".

A hallmark of a Chevalier novel is an unstinting dedication to research and a gift for breathing life into historical minutiae.

She does it again in her latest novel, fleshing out the figure of the folk hero Johnny Appleseed - who makes a cameo appearance - and delving deep into the technicalities of apple cultivation.

James, for instance, will lecture "anyone who will listen" on how most apples planted from seed turn out sour ("spitters"), but one in 10 produces an "eater".

Ultimately, these lessons serve as a metaphor for the family's struggle for survival, in which Robert arguably emerges victorious as the family's only "eater".

If you like this, read: East Of Eden by John Steinbeck (Penguin, 1952, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya), set in the Salinas Valley in California and following the lives of two families over several generations.

Linette Lai


  • FICTION

    THE FORGETTING TIME

    By Sharon Guskin

    Mantle/Paperback/356 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

Single mother Janie Zimmerman's four-year-old son Noah is the light of her life. But when her precocious child begins asking for his "other mother" amid talk of dark spells and gun violence, she has to contend with the possibility that he could be the reincarnation of a murdered child.

The premise of documentary- producer Sharon Guskin's debut novel may come across as a dark Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy and, at times, it even crosses over into the territory of New Age fluff. But with hauntingly luminescent prose, the writer fleshes out characters and weaves together subplots to create an intricate text that functions as a mediation on mortality, grief and loss.

On a trip to Trinidad while mourning the death of her mother, Janie accidentally conceives her son after an encounter with a stranger.

The otherworldly universe that she inhabits with Noah hints at the potential violence that belies the beautiful veneer of their relationship. While their home makes her feel "as if she and Noah could burrow together there safely, apart from the world, apart from time", quotidian details such as the watchful flicker of a gas lamp's flame made her "startle more than once with the feeling that the house was on fire".

In this book, characters from different class and racial backgrounds are connected by grief, underscoring the cyclical nature of life and death.

Janie consults researcher Dr Jerome Anderson, haunted by the miscarriage of his child, who has been studying young children with the uncanny ability to recall details from previous lives for decades. They knock on doors of families who have lost children, trying to match Noah to the home of his past life.

The novel hurtles to its heartbreaking climax when Janie and Dr Anderson accidentally, and cruelly, raise the expectations of a family that their dead son could be returned to them again.

Guskin deftly plumbs the depths of the emotional stages that are associated with grief, leading characters on careful, mature negotiations through guilt and betrayed hope that eventually lead to acceptance and a sense of closure.

At times, references to real-life research work conducted at the University of Virginia that attempt to lend an anthropological lens to the issue of reincarnation come across as out of place.

But Guskin, thankfully, does not linger on the scientific possibility of such an occurrence, choosing to keep it open-ended throughout the novel: It serves merely as a vehicle to articulate the complexity of emotions that accompany the mysteries of the afterlife.

If you like this, read: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Picador, 2002, $21.19, Books Kinokuniya), in which a teenage girl watches over her family from the afterlife as they struggle to come to terms with her murder.

Yuen Sin


  • FICTION

    DIARY OF A BODY

    By Daniel Pennac

    Quercus Publishing/Paperback/252pages/$29.65/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

No detail of the human body is spared in French writer Daniel Pennac's aptly named Diary Of A Body, an account of one man's physical state from pre-adolescence to death.

This novel, which was written in French and translated to English, is refreshing at the start. Pennac presents familiar bodily functions with an unflinching honesty not commonly found in popular culture, but his observations are spot-on, humorous and always tasteful, even when the subject matter might not be kosher for the dinner table.

This is how he describes taking a satisfying dump: "Looking down on an impeccable turd, all in one piece... with a smell but not a stench, cleanly severed and of a uniform brown, produced with a single push causing a smooth exit, and leaving no trace on the toilet paper, I have the sense of a satisfied craftsman: my body did its job well."

This is one of Diary's greatest strengths: vividly portraying the human condition of birth, growing up, ageing and death.There comes a point in this chronologically written diary, which is marked both by date and the narrator's age, down to the number of days, where everyone will arrive at the same stage of life as the protagonist.

As we move past that point, it is all uncharted territory and a shared understanding of physical experiences turns into an early warning about what lies ahead.

Once he hits 52, the narrator describes the sensation of forgetting. "The sudden disappearance of data once known: bankcard code... telephone numbers, first and last names, birthdays, etc, are crashing into me like meteorites. It is the shock more than the forgetting that shakes my entire planet."

It is a sensitive insight into ageing, especially how it feels to realise youth and seeming invincibility have slipped away.

As Pennac expounds on these observations, personal details of the anonymous narrator are glossed over. The protagonist marries a woman, has two children and becomes a grandfather, although none of his loved ones are discussed far beyond their physical state.

Reading a novel requires emotional investment in the characters, so it is sometimes difficult to remain interested in a protagonist who staunchly avoids discussing his feelings, even as he navigates challenging life events such as his grandson's unexpected death from liver failure at 25 or losing his childhood buddy to cancer.

If his readers want to feel for him, Pennac refuses to let them. Even in his final days, he wants no pity. "Now, my little Dodo, it is time to die. Don't be afraid, I'll show you how."

Still, it is to Pennac's credit that the reader feels for this protagonist, having just walked a lifetime in his shoes.

If you like this, read: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Random House, 2016, $25.94, MPH), in which a dying surgeon contemplates his mortality and his life's work.

Clara Lock


  • FICTION

    THE TREES

    By Ali Shaw

    Bloomsbury Circus /Paperback/487 pages/$27.88/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

"Midway along the journey of our life/ I awoke to find myself in a dark wood."

So begins Italian poet Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno, in which the narrator loses himself in an unexpected forest that he can escape only by entering Hell.

These lines from Inferno form a fitting epigram for British author Ali Shaw's third novel. It puts a literal spin on Dante's words by having a vast forest spring out of the earth overnight, destroying civilisation in seconds.

No explanation for the mystical forest invasion is given, but it is hinted that Nature has had enough and this is her way of hitting back.

Shaw's eco-thriller is nowhere near as horrifyingly bleak as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which sets the bar for post- apocalyptic gloom and doom, but this is no fairy-tale forest either. He pulls no punches with scenes that are visceral, even gruesome. Other moments are spine-chilling as he taps straight into people's arcane fear of the deep, dark woods.

The trees wreck buildings, cut off power, impale bodies or crush them to pulp. Wolves and other predators roam freely, picking off the surviving humans trying to eke out a living in the new wilderness.

Among these survivors is Adrien, a middle-aged teacher who is terrified of the outdoors. He tags along with Hannah, a hippie gardener who thinks the trees are the best thing that could have happened to mankind, and her teenage son Seb, whose computer skills have been made redundant.

Together, they leave the wreckage of their British town and set off into the woods to find Hannah's forester brother and Adrien's wife, who was in Ireland when the trees struck. The longer she is in the forest, the more Hannah's enthusiasm wanes as she realises the natural world is as brutal as it is beautiful.

Adrien toughens physically to an extent, but continues to be frustratingly limp in personality. He and Hannah are clearly designed as foils to each other and so have a tendency to be somewhat cardboard in their characteristics. They are joined by Japanese exchange student Hiroko, whose competence with slingshots and hunting knives hides a troubled relationship with her family in Japan, whom she may never see again.

Hiroko, who can knock out a wolf's eye with a pebble and keeps a fox cub in her hood, is a breath of fresh air. Her emotional journey becomes perhaps the novel's most compelling.

As this motley crew picks its way through the forest, the members are reminded at every turn how violence is fundamental to nature, which is red in tooth and claw. Hedgehogs rip chunks out of slugs as they try to crawl away. Chimpanzees from warring clans tear off the arms and legs of rivals. Humans, supposedly at the apex of evolution, are the ugliest creatures.

Something more sinister lurks at the heart of the forest. Paths are erased minutes after being trodden on. The foliage is full of whispers. And something terrible watches Adrien from within the woods.

Shaw deftly packages his environmental message with gripping adventure and a good dose of mysticism, all of which hurtles towards a climax that employs a shocking degree of savagery.

In an era where global warming and the earth's degradation are looming threats, his ecological apocalypse hits close to home. The novel poses a warning to those who, ignoring the bigger picture of environmental crisis, are unable to see the forest for the trees.

If you like this, read: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Pan Macmillan, 2015, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya). Twenty years after a virus ravages the world, a group of travelling actors and musicians performs Shakespeare to what is left of civilisation.

Olivia Ho


  • YOUNG ADULT

    13 MINUTES

    By Sarah Pinborough

    Gollancz London/Paperback/405 pages/$29.99 before GST/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

Horror writer Sarah Pinborough has chosen an unlikely but effective setting for her latest book: the social media-saturated world of 16-year-old girls.

The story is set in Lancashire, United Kingdom and begins when Brackston Community College's queen bee, Tasha, miraculously survives a near-drowning when she is found unconscious in a river one wintry morning.

She cannot recall how she got there. Her closest friends Jenny and Haley start to behave strangely, exchanging texts that seem to imply that they know more than they let on.

At the same time, Tasha becomes more popular than ever after her near-death experience, with sycophantic schoolmates begging for details about her experience.

Pinborough creates a complex protagonist in Tasha: a classic Mean Girl who pits her friends against one another and would revive an old friendship with her ex-best friend Becca just to make Jenny and Haley jealous.

Yet, she is charming and reads others well, her wit coming through in her diary entries in the book.

For example, when her friends visit her in hospital and tell her they miss her, Tasha observes wryly: "It's only been one day. I wonder quite how much they could have missed me when no doubt all they'd done was talk about me the whole time."

Also, it is hard to hate her when someone really wants her dead - with a trail of dead bodies suggesting that she is next.

Pinborough has successfully constructed a modern mystery in a realistic world of teenage double- speak and social media interactions.

The book is a collage of multiple accounts, including those from the girls involved, the investigating detective's files and newspaper clippings.

But while Pinborough excels in capturing the voices of her adolescent characters, her pacing is lacklustre. The book is divided into three parts, each providing more clues to what might have happened.

But the first third, in which Tasha is mainly seen as a victim, feels unnecessarily long and repetitive as not much detail about Tasha's near-death experience is divulged.

Instead, the reader is mainly distracted by the girls' "frenemy-ship".

Thankfully, the book picks up with several plot twists and reveals the culprit earlier than the usual whodunit, and then spends time going into the murderer's motivations. As a result, the ending of the book feels well earned after all the meandering.

With its lively, smart-alecky protagonists and plot twists, the book makes for a riveting read. Teenage friendships may be tricky and transient, but in the skilful hands of Pinborough, they take on a sinister and more tragic turn that no one would wish on his worst enemies.

If you like this, read: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz London, 2015, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), a creepy tale about a boy taken away from his family and made to live with a group of pariahs because of his DNA.

Nabilah Said

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'Family caught up in politics Book Of The Month'. Print Edition | Subscribe