By Alyssa Pong for Two Book Nerds Talking
A chorister and the grandniece of a Communist insurgent get roped into a high-stakes adventure, filled with jovial mystical beings, queer love, and a looming threat to be defeated.
Back of Book
Enter a shadowy mythology of serpents, Sufi saints and plainclothes gods…
Read it because
This book takes you on whirlwind of a journey. One minute you’ll be venturing into the heart of Kuala Lumpur, traversing Masjid Jamek, and peering into the Klang River where a once-missing journalist’s body is found. Turn the page over and you’ll find yourself on a high-speed chase along the Golden Highway headed for Tun Teja’s, the very person remembered for being kidnapped by Hang Tuah and presented to the King of Melaka. Throw in a museum heist somewhere in the midst of that, and you’ve got the barebones of what this book entails.
We follow Gabriel, a curious chorister who stumbles upon a mysterious figure clad in green. Soon enough, he finds himself driving this man (a Sufi prophet as it turns out) across state lines to fight an existential threat unbeknownst to him. Meanwhile, in Kuantan, recent graduate Lydia returns home to help her kind, pious father pack up her late grandaunt’s house. As she prepares to say goodbye to the very house she grew up in, Lydia discovers a series of romantic letters revealing a forbidden love between two Communist women at the height of the Insurgency. Just as Lydia reconciles the memory of her grandaunt with the person she really was, an unsuspecting guest arrives…
So much goes on in this novel, and like Gabriel and Lydia, I was swept up in the many hijinks of this world. It is one of mythical yakshas, bantering walis, and of course, the omnipresent ‘Mouth’ – a living, breathing evil that brings this motley crew of beings (magical and non) together. Somehow, Kam even manages to tie in musings on evils bigger than the Mouth itself – capitalism, racism, homophobia, climate change, and colonialism – you know, all that light and fluffy stuff. But that didn’t deter from the whimsy and found family aspect of this group of magical misfits, who I came to adore.
Is this really for me?
“To think of these strange histories is important”, notes Kam in an interview with us. Boy oh boy does he know this country’s history like the back of his hand, and it shows. Though, that doesn’t stop the story from being completely accessible to readers unfamiliar with our local legends and mannerisms. While it can get a little info-dumpy at times, history buffs may still glean a thing or two from Kam’s resurfacing of alternate histories.
A Prose Taster
“Today she found it in the shattered pantry, hidden behind plates, blocks of coffee and a Tupperware of abandoned biscuits. This was an omen: after five unfilial years away, her grandaunt’s house was letting her back in, pardoning her absence, ceding her a new place at a table.“
In a nutshell
This book is audacious, not only in the sheer number of topics it tackles, but the narrative Kam crafts around it as well. Expect for your understanding of our country’s past to be challenged in the way only stories are able to. At the same time, Kam manages to interweave the present; capturing the hopes, fears, and vigilance felt nationwide in 2018. So don’t be too surprised to find nods to ‘Malaysia Baru’ or big-name political figures.
In many ways, this novel reimagines our country amid a buzzing time of change. While it does all that and more, this novel also brims with loveable characters. I believed the centuries’ old friendships between the cheeky walis and their many inside jokes. The way Lydia’s father grappled with his daughter’s diverging views in such a compassionate way, definitely hit a little too close to home. And, of course, the love between two grown women (and men) that may just melt your heart a little. There’s a lil’ something for everyone in this ambitious tale; from a debut author no less! So, buckle up and let Kam take you into his vision of a hopeful Malaysian future.
Two Book Nerds Talking is hosted by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong. We do deep dives into books, nerd out on bookish things and interview authors. Check out our interview with Joshua Kam here https://www.spreaker.com/user/renegaderadiomy/tbnt-joshua-kam-mixdown He is one smart cookie.