Vyvyane Loh Breaking the Tongue: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780393326543

Breaking the Tongue: A Novel

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9780393326543: Breaking the Tongue: A Novel

"Dramatic....One of the most ambitious and accomplished debut novels in recent memory."―Kirkus Reviews, starred review.

"This masterly novel is not only bold and challenging but also beautifully written. The reader will be left breathless by the ending."―Library Journal "A moving accomplishment."―Publishers Weekly, starred review "Vyvyane Loh's richly ambitious narrative weaves the personal and the political into an unforgettable novel."―Claire Messud "In the tradition of Rushdie or Ondaatje, this is one of the most accomplished first novels I've ever seen."―Andrea Barrett  "A revelatory book that is both novel and history, written with splendid and intelligent humanity."―Shirley Hazzard, author of The Great Fire

This brilliant novel chronicles the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II. Central to the story is one Chinese family: Claude, raised to be more British than the British and ashamed of his own heritage; his father, Humphrey, whose Anglophilia blinds him to possible defeat and his wife's dalliances; and the redoubtable Grandma Siok, whose sage advice falls on deaf ears. Expatriates, spies, fifth columnists, and nationalists―including the elusive young woman Ling-Li―mingle in this exotic culture as the Japanese threat looms. Beset by the horror of war and betrayal and, finally, torture, Claude must embrace his true heritage. In the extraordinary final paragraphs of the novel, the language itself breaks into Chinese. With penetrating observation, Vyvyane Loh unfolds the coming-of-age story of a young man and a nation, a story that deals with myth, race, and class, with the ways language shapes perceptions, and with the intrigue and suffering of war. Reading group guide included.

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About the Author:

Vyvyane Loh was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore. She holds undergraduate and medical degrees from Boston University, and she graduated from the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She now lives outside Boston.

From The Washington Post:

In her first novel, Breaking the Tongue, Vyvyane Loh elegantly chronicles a young man's coming of age during the fall of Singapore in World War II. Along the way, she explores such concepts as loyalty to one's family and country, the place of language in culture, and the roles of race, racism and ethnicity in how we perceive ourselves and others. In doing so, she has skillfully touched on questions at the very heart of politics, culture and global relations today.

Loh narrates the book through the eyes of Claude Lim -- a young man from a fine, upstanding Chinese family -- who is undergoing a brutal interrogation at the hands of the Japanese. Claude, with his perfect English and seemingly assured future at Oxford, can't believe what's happening. To be mistaken for someone Chinese -- "dirty," "crude" and "superstitious" -- is the worst insult he could endure, and yet here he is, undergoing torture for being the very thing he loathes. In an effort to protect what he might know, Claude takes a page from his grandmother's bible, General Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "All warfare is based on deception." As knives slash his face and he hears his friends being tortured in the next room, he unwittingly comes to realize that the Fifth Columnist who turned him in already knows -- "the truth has countless permutations."

So Claude looks back and tells his story -- at times shielding the ones he loves, at times exposing their worst secrets. His father, Humphrey, "infatuated by the idea of Empire," speaks English-accented English, works in an English bank, and forces his family to sit on the veranda every sweltering afternoon for English high tea, believing that if they become fully Anglicized then they will be accepted by the British as equals. Claude's mother, Cynthia, is so filled with self-loathing that she burns the inside of her wrists -- and those of the Englishmen to whom she is an "exotic" conquest -- with cigarettes. Sister Lucy, like Claude, is so distanced from who she is that she's been known to proclaim "I'm not Chinese!" This privileged family, with its belief in the merits of English rule, is in for a rude awakening.

Soon enough the family flees the capital for the safety of a farm in the countryside, leaving Claude behind to care for a sick friend, Jack Winchester -- a Brit who, until war broke out, moved surely through the thronging crowds, fully confident in his position. Claude is virtually useless in his attempts to care for Jack until he meets Ling-li, a Chinese nurse and sometime spy, who helps them both but in very different ways. If, lying limp, prostrate and indefinite in his illness, Jack is a symbol of the fall of the British Empire, then Ling-li, who is difficult, persistent and relentless in her ability to endure, is a symbol of Asia. Ling-li patronizes Claude for being immature and naive, and lets Jack know that he is just another burdensome white man and that Asia must be for Asians.

Even as Claude tells his interrogators of his time spent with Ling-li and Jack, the Fifth Columnist is simultaneously using many of the same facts to create a parallel tale of spying, intrigue and betrayal. Several real-life personages make appearances, including Patrick Heenan, a "mongrel" of East Indian and Irish descent, who realizes that his natal cultures have no use for him, and not only embraces the Japanese but finds that they return his affection; eventually he becomes the traitor who betrays British defense plans to his new friends.

Loh writes through shadows cast by Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, E.M. Forster and what can be assumed to be personal experience to add layer upon layer of texture -- the suffocating heat and humidity of the tropics, doses of curry and gin, native peoples astutely aware of the foolishness of the white men who rule over them, and the pettiness of those colonials who know that their lives are far better "out there" than back home living in a cold-water flat, working in a dead-end job, limited by class accent, unable to afford servants and chauffeurs. Loh sees it all through the polyglot culture that is Singapore, where English, Malay, Thai, Tamil, Tagalog, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hindi, Farsi, Nepalese and Hainanese create a cacophony of sound on the street. Loh understands that within that cacophony are individual voices, each with a unique point of view.

Putting aside obvious comparisons to recent activity in the Middle East and elsewhere, readers will find issues of a far more introspective nature. Singapore may have been one of the more diverse places in the world 60 years ago, but today the United States is arguably the most diverse place on the earth. How do we identify ourselves, and how do others identify us? Are we our face, our blood, our clothes, our language, our citizenship? These questions confront everyday people like the Harvard-educated doctor who's mistaken for a redneck because of his Southern accent or the Wall Street executive who can't get a taxi because he's African American, as well as folks like Michael Jackson, Eminem, John Walker Lindh and even Tiger Woods. In a novel about what happened on a small island in the midst of worldwide upheaval, Loh not only sees how individuals -- with all of their hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses -- move through history, but has also used them well to illuminate the present.

Reviewed by Lisa See


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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