Knowing Your Family, and Yourself

From Penguin
The Harmony Silk Factory
Tash Aw

So you think you know someone? Think again. Aw’s novel, set in rural Malaya in the beginning of the 20th century, asks us to consider if we can ever know our parents. The book is divided into three main parts, narrated in turn by Jasper Lim, Snow Soong Lim, and Peter Wormwood.

Jasper introduces us to his father, the mysterious, seemingly invincible, and recently deceased Johnny Lim. Johnny started of life as a poor peasant, and eventually grew into the most influential businessman in the Kinta Valley.  Jasper paints his father as a corrupt, cold, and violent. On page five, Johnny punishes Jasper for a perceived lie.

I told Father about this woman and how she had smiled at me. His response was as I expected. He reached slowly for my ear and twisted it hard, squeezing the blood from it. He said, “Don’t tell stories,” and then slapped my face twice.    
To tell the truth, I had become used to this kind of punishment.

Jasper has an obsession with finding out the “truth” about his father. He spends countless hours poring over old newspaper accounts that mention his father. He reads local histories to understand what life was like for a peasant when Johnny grew up. He learns that his mother, Snow, who died during childbirth, was the most beautiful woman in the valley.  Jasper never met his maternal grandparents, but blames them for forcing Snow to marry Johnny, dooming her to a lifetime of misery. Overall, the impression I got is while Johnny may be a bastard, Jasper is a petulant child who needs to grow up. He sounds more like a spoiled twenty something than the fifty year old man that he is.



Snow, Johnny’s wife, paints a very different picture of the man, their courtship, and their marriage. She meets him one day when he gets caught in a rainstorm outside of her family’s house. She decides that she wants to marry him, although she doesn’t explain her immediate attraction. It seems that Johnny is also in love with her, but is cowed by her family. Very soon after their marriage she realized that their feelings aren’t enough for her.  Johnny is shy, nearly speechless in Snow’s presence. Her story focuses in on a few days where they are sent on a belated honeymoon by Snow’s parents. It isn’t exactly the romantic getaway that a pair of newlyweds would hope for. They are accompanied by three other men – an English businessman, a Japanese professor, and Johnny’s friend Peter. During the trip, Snow continually ruminates on how she will leave Johnny, while she isn’t taking romantic strolls with another member of the party (dun dun dunnnnnnn…).


It’s hard to really identify with Snow, because her musings are directed into her diary. She doesn’t need to give herself background information, but it would be helpful to the reader. We can’t really get to know her with so much information. Of course, that’s kinda a theme here.


Finally, we here from Peter Wormwood, identified as Johnny’s only friend. Peter is some hapless Englishman who may or may not be an actor, looking for adventure in the tropics. He befriends Johnny after meeting  him in a coffee shop in Singapore. His tale is told in flashbacks as he winds down his days in an old folks’ home.  He says:


                This place is the end. Twenty-two rooms occupied by twenty-two near-fossils, little more than a halfway house in the short journey to the cemetery down the road.

Before Peter makes that short journey, he is going to wrap up our tale. Through Peter’s eyes, we get to see that Johnny really did care for Snow. He tells Peter that he just wants to get her away from her parents, and then everything will be better. Peter helps Johnny find the house that he’ll move into to start his family. This is the house in which Jasper grows up. Peter also describes a moment where he saw Johnny lovingly play with Jasper as a toddler. Most of all, though, we just realize that Peter is a jerk.  He has lived his adult life in southeast Asia, but he has nothing but contempt for the people and the landscape. Where once he relished visiting Johnny’s Kinta Valley, now he longs to bring an English garden to his group home. He has an inflated sense of his own capabilities. His grand Eden garden fantasy seems more like a pipe dream than a real possibility.


At the end though, there is a moment of clarity. He packs up a small box of his most precious possessions – his garden plans, part of an old photograph, and Snow’s diary – and heads off to Johnny Lim’s funeral. The box, of course, is for Jasper. We know, from Jasper’s section, that he throws this box carelessly in the backseat of his car, with the countless other items he received that day. I admit, I really had a bit of fun imagining his reaction when and if he opens it.


All three of the narrators state that “death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and forever.”  This flies in the face of what we normally think – that we can keep people alive and with us through remembering.   But when it is so difficult to know someone else, or even ourselves, then perhaps there is more truth to the statement than we’d like to believe.
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