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


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw – review
Tash Aw's tale of five migrant workers carving out lives in a modernising Shanghai is the stuff of a hit TV miniseries, says Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones

24, Feb, 2013 @12:05 AM

Article image
Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw review – memories of a Malaysian outsider
Aw’s memoir subtly laments the gulf between him and his parents, the present and the past

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

23, Aug, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw | Book review

Tash Aw's novel, set in south-east Asia in the 1960s, is written with great pace and affection for his subjects, writes Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

17, Apr, 2010 @11:09 PM

Article image
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck – review
A retired Berlin professor finds a new role among African asylum seekers in Jenny Erpenbeck’s gripping new novel, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Anita Sethi

10, Sep, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo review – a hero at the Golden Gate
One Filipino migrant’s struggle to live her American dream after two years in a prison camp makes for a blazingly fearless debut novel

Benjamin Evans

27, May, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa – review
A tale of an unlikely pair of female people-traffickers in Morocco is gripping and intense

Eileen Battersby

06, Jan, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn review – broken bonds and dashed dreams
A Jamaican woman leaves her daughter for a new life in the US in a topical, tender novel

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

19, Aug, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Survivors by Alex Schulman review – bloody family reunion
The Swedish writer’s international debut novel uses a tricksy narrative structure to tackle the meeting of three brothers driven apart by tragedy

Stephanie Merritt

03, Oct, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Valeria Luiselli: 'I look at Mexico from afar with pain and love'
The author of Lost Children Archive tells of her work in US youth immigration courts and her difficulty in choosing whether to write in English or Spanish

Ursula Kenny

20, Jun, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
We, the Survivors by Tash Aw review – murder in a world of injustice
A fearful young man carries out a seemingly random crime in this gripping and strangely moving novel

John Burnside

27, Apr, 2019 @6:30 AM