I remember being very impressed by Tash Aw’s debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, which was surrounded by a great deal of hype when it was published back in 2005 but for some reason I’d not got around to reading anything else by him until We,The Survivors turned up. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy.
When Ah Hock was four, his father left for Singapore, promising to send money home but never returned. After the land she’d scrimped and scraped to buy was ruined by floods, his mother moved in with another man, a wastrel outcast from the village. Ah Hock becomes friends with Keong when he’s twelve, despite the four-year gap in their ages. Keong fancies himself a gangster, taking off to Kuala Lumpur where Ah Hock briefly joins him, returning home when he sees there’s no future for a boy like him in the city. For ten years, Ah Hock works on Mr Lai’s fish farm, making himself indispensable, marrying and hoping to start a family, his eyes fixed on a smart new house but the endlessly promised pay rise never arrives. Keong returns to the village, full of his new job finding migrant labour for employers looking for cheap workers and none too fussy about the veracity of their papers. When Ah Hock’s staff begin to sicken with cholera he turns to Keong in desperation, knowing that he’ll lose his job unless he finds more workers quickly. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangaldeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife but it’s Ah Hock who springs to Keong’s defence and finds himself convicted of murder.
Aw’s novel takes the form of Ah Hock’s testimony given to a young woman who first tells him she’s an academic, then confesses she’s writing a book about him. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent man, compassionate and empathetic towards the migrant workers he manages on the fish farm. The last man, one might think, to launch a frenzied attack on the Bangladeshi gang master for whose murder he spends three years in prison. Aw reveals Ah Hock’s character through memories, anecdotes and reflections while exploring themes of racism, corruption and the exploitation of migrant workers rife throughout Malaysian society. Allusions to changes in fickle Western demands and their effects on migrant workers’ jobs provoke thought and attitudes to refugees are sometimes uncomfortably close to those found in some quarters of the West. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction, both compelling and sobering.
This is the first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli and I’m delighted to say it’s been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve read only one of her novels, The Story of My Teeth, which I loved but which I gather isn’t typical of her work. Lost Children Archive is a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border into the United States, many of them unaccompanied children. It explores the story of these children through one family who are travelling from New York to Arizona, their future uncertain.
Two unnamed parents set off from New York city with their children – his ten-year-old son and her five-year-old daughter – each with different projects to pursue when they reach their destination. They are both archivists of a kind, recording soundscapes as a way of exploring stories, but each has a very different approach. Their marriage is foundering, their future undecided although he intends to stay in Arizona documenting the Apache nation while she plans to record what is happening to migrant children, spurred on by her friend’s plea to look for her two daughters. As they cross the country, the children entertain themselves playing games reflecting what they hear on the radio, the audiobooks their mother has selected and the Apache stories their father tells them. They stop in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Aware of his parents’ unhappiness, the boy decides to take action in the hope of bringing his parents back together.
Where to start with this immensely ambitious, contemplative novel? It begins from the mother’s perspective then switches to the son’s whose narrative echoes the structure of his mother’s. Each of their accounts is rich in literary allusion: the mother reads from Elegies for Lost Children, a book apparently based on the Children’s Crusade echoing the migrant children’s journeys and itself stuffed with literary references, which the son takes up. There’s a useful list of works cited in the back if, like me, you’re not as formidably erudite as Luiselli which helps elucidate many of these allusions. There are stories within stories throughout this novel but at the heart of them all are lost children, the way that they are failed, sometimes cruelly, and the necessity both of recording their fate and of bearing witness to it. It’s far from an easy read – there’s a long dense passage with little in the way of punctuation that almost defeated me – but it’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. A humane and at times beautiful response to a desperate global problem.