This was a very compelling read. The story is set in Penang, Malaysia, just before, during and shortly after the Japanese invasion and occupation in World War II. It follows the soulful trajectory of a half-Chinese, half-British local young lad, who learns the hard lessons of duty, love and loyalty in the midst of war-time brutalities, when it is most difficult to draw the line between right and wrong.
The book is divided into Part One and Part Two. Part One tells how Philip Hutton, a half-British half-Chinese youngest son of a wealthy British merchant family meets with a Japanese consulate official, Endo-san, and how he comes to love and respect him as his sensei (teacher) in aikido and its attendant philosophy, Japanese culture and language, and the meanings of harmony and love. He is eager to show his Japanese sensei around Penang. Philip, whose Chinese mother died when he was a child, feels isolated from his British family members including his father, and finds affections and acceptance in Endo-san’s mentorship and friendship. This Part also deals with the cultural misunderstanding between Philip’s father and his maternal Chinese grandfather that caused great pain to his mother. After a meeting with the old man, who tells Philip the story of his youthful days as a tutor to a would-be Chinese emperor in the Qing court, the young man changes his perception of the old one and finds it in his heart to forgive his previous callousness towards his mother. Philip also comes to accept his father and half siblings.
Part Two describes in the background the atrocities that the Japanese invaders inflict on the residents of Penang, and how Philip struggles with the dilemma between keeping his family safe and being an upright citizen. In his all-consuming desire to protect his family, he bows to Endo-san’s pressure and agrees to work for the Japanese. Now he realizes that Endo-san has been spying for the Japanese military and using him as a source of information. He finds himself an accomplice to the Japanese in executing innocent villagers and city residents. He also indirectly causes the death of his half sister and aunt. When his best friend Kon, who is with a British military camp, decides to engage in a dangerous plot against the Japanese, Philip becomes an informant in an effort to save Kon, but his effort failed.
The story is told through Philip’s recount of the events to a woman who comes from Japan and who wishes to know everything about Endo-san, having been in love with him. In the painful recalling and reliving of events, Philip at last finds peace with himself.
I find the plot a complex and enthralling one, although a few details stretch the imagination a bit. The writing is lyrical and evocative of emotions and gives a beautiful description of the island of Penang.
I’m giving it 4.3 stars.