We, the Survivors by Tash Aw – review

Prejudice and the refugee experience are examined in this taut novel set in Malaysia

After novels set in British Malaya, postcolonial Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai, Tash Aw’s new book stays in the present to tell a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia.

It’s told by Ah Hock, a villager who, after a string of precarious jobs in and around Kuala Lumpur, lands on his feet managing a fish farm. But when a cholera epidemic leaves him without workers, he unwisely accepts help from a childhood friend, Keong, a one-time drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry.

As Aw retraces Ah Hock’s steps to this fateful turning point – his sense of morality running up against his need to maintain his toehold on a decent livelihood – we come to understand that his words are being transcribed by Su-Min, a sociology postgraduate returning to Malaysia after her studies in the US.

Ah Hock has agreed to her request for an interview after serving a jail sentence for a crime we don’t fully grasp until the novel’s end; brief interludes show them discussing how she might shape his story into something she thinks of as “narrative non-fiction”.

Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so. We wonder what Su-Min seeks from Ah Hock’s story, but also why Ah Hock wants to tell it (he admits a punitive desire to give her more than she bargained for when she asks him to hold nothing back).

As a vegetarian who freaks out at the sight of a rat and tells Ah Hock “not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on traditional gender lines”, Su-Min is sent up a bit. But the novel isn’t simplistic, not least in its portrait of the complex contours of prejudice in Malaysian society. If Ah Hock suffers on account of his Chinese heritage, he knows he has it easier than many; the story turns on a group of Rohingya refugees being eyed by Keong as a solution to what Ah Hock’s wife calls his “manpower problem”.

A grim picture emerges of the Asian continent’s poor and less-poor, forced into a conflict shaped by western whims. Someone says: “Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly 10 factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking world so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month, the entire port is on its knees.”

But Aw doesn’t rely on tub-thumping; his achievement is to make a global story personal. When he finally circles back to Ah Hock’s crime, the scene is managed briskly, in keeping with a tale that, however grim, is never solemn or overwrought. It even ends on a gentle note; still, the novel’s horrors can’t easily be pushed out of mind.

• We, the Survivors is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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