|Malay House at Balik Pulau,|
watercolour by Ch'ng Kiah Kiean
Ms. Kuan uses the years of LiLian's childhood and adolescence to paint an evocative picture of life in a Penang kampong during the 1950s, when there was greater harmony between the races and religions as they enjoyed each other's customs and celebrations and grieved together at very different funeral rites. In the 1960s, Li Lian and her closest friends discuss having careers in a way that their mothers never had. Even well into her young adulthood, Li Lian continues to have nightmares, continues to murmur "Si... ng... lok" as she sleeps, although her waking mind has no memory of her original family.
She laughingly accepts the last piece of cake at her friends' weddings, indifferent to the superstition that doing so will render her a lifelong old maid. She doesn't mind, she says, she has a sense that there is a matter that needs to be cleared up before she would marry anyway. Her plans, however, are disrupted when she falls in love with the Chinese man who has assiduously courted her for three years. She finally capitulates and marries him. As a reader, I began to fear a saccharine happily-ever-after ending with Li Lian's nightmares happily resolving into connubial bliss, but Ms. Kuan isn't a Mills & Boon author. Hours after the birth of her first child, Li Lian has a searing memory of her childhood.
She soon leaves the baby with an amah and goes back to the village where she was born, demanding answers from the Malay neighbour who had found her. At least, when she sees the house again, she remembers how she came to be beneath it, and what she saw when looking out through the front steps. Her adoptive parents and friends advise her to forgive, to try to forget, to focus on a bright future for herself, her husband and her child, but Li Lian cannot let go of the wartime horror. She cannot find peace until she wreaks revenge. She recalls her Chinese grandfather's motto: Cut grass, sever roots.
This is an excruciating portrait of the lasting wounds that can fester through generations following war. It's also a well-crafted image of the cheerful coexistence between Malaysia's ethnic communities, and I pray that continues and grows.