The punishment for betrayal is living with the knowledge of what you have done

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

The Storm We Made, by Vanessa Chan (Hodder & Stoughton)

In the writing of this debut novel The Storm We Made there is no doubt that Vanessa Chan was greatly influenced by her grandparents’ experiences in Malaysia between 1941 to 1945, when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

She says: “In Malaysia our grandparents love us by not speaking. More specifically, they do not speak about… the period when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Malaya, tossed the British colonisers out and turned a quiet nation into one that was at war with itself.” 

Generally Malaysian grandparents are very chatty – so that silence speaks volumes.

While her research has revealed much of what happened during that time, there is a very personal quality to Chan’s story, almost as if she is laying ghosts in the telling. But this is a fictional account which takes us across 10 years from the British Malaya of 1935 through the Japanese occupation up to 1945.

What makes a spy? Perhaps it is boredom, drudgery and discontent? For Cecily, mother of Jujube, Abel and Jasmin, this fillip of spice and excitement is the antidote to her daily life.

Seduced by the charismatic General Fujiwara, who promises a Malaya free of the British, she sneaks information from her unknowing husband Gordon, a low-level bureaucrat for the British government.  Unwittingly her information alters the fate of the country, introducing a brutal Japanese dictatorship and changing the fabric of life as they know it. 

It is a sorrowful book, as the betrayal brings nothing but tragedy. Yet the reader is drawn to Cecily – not a bad woman; her motives are pure, the only foreseen gain was to see the country freed from the shackles of colonialism.

Instead, she, her family and community experience such hardship and loss that you will weep as Chan skillfully portrays the worst of times. She keeps us glued to the pages as the story plays out.

From the relatively good times of British rule, with all its condescension and racism, to the bad times when boys disappear, and beatings, starvation and brutality are daily occurrences.

And it is on Cecily that her family relies. Her children are in danger and she can hardly protect them. Betrayal exacts a high price on her family.

Chan has given us defined characters, each one relevant to the time – the chattering colonial wives, the Eurasian community and their rituals and the unlikely friendships that hide the fear of the occupying forces. The terror is palpable, the friendships believable; there are light moments but there is a desperately sad darkness as situations change.

Chan gives us a timeline of historical events and has woven a truly heartbreaking story around them. But as with a new dawn, there is a glimmer of hope at the end. There is no retribution for traitors, you will pay with what you hold dearest and, while you may never be caught, it is living with what has been done that is the punishment. 

Chan has written a fine historical novel which I enjoyed tremendously. I was moved, angered and intrigued as I read about a time of which I had little knowledge. It is books of this calibre that ensure we continue to remember history long after the protagonists are gone. 

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