PETALING JAYA, July 10 — Much has been said of novels about Malaya written by foreigners, not all of which are good. So I warily picked up this one and ended up finishing it in one go.
Though Australian author Carol Jones has written many books, including many children's books and several young adult novels, she tapped into stories from her Malaysian Chinese in-laws and further research for her first adult novel. The Concubine's Child is about a young girl who is sold to a wealthy family as a concubine — and the child she eventually bears — across two eras: 1930s Kuala Lumpur and the 21st century.
Lim Yu Lan, the daughter of an apothecary, draws the attention of Madam Chan, the wife of tin-mining tycoon Chan Boon Siew. The older woman sees Yu Lan as the solution to her husband's lack of heirs.
Unable to bear children of her own, she essentially buys Yu Lan from her father, an inveterate gambler, and sets the hapless girl up as her husband's secondary wife and baby-making machine.
Bullied by Madam Chan and subjected to Towkay Chan's advances, Yu Lan's life in the Chan household becomes a nightmare. The reluctant concubine's only ally is the amah, Ho Jie, who befriends Yu Lan and teaches her ways to make her new life more bearable.
At first it seems as if the amah, who is not fond of her mistress, is doing it to spice up the drama between the two wives. Over time, though, she warms up to the girl.
But before we know it we find ourselves in England in 2015, watching a couple try to fix a flat tyre in the rain. Turns out the couple are Sarah and her husband, Nick, who happens to be Yu Lan's descendant. Later, Nick announces that he's going to Kuala Lumpur for work. The news unsettles his mum, perhaps for good reason.
In Malaysia, Nick starts delving into his family's history. As his quest continues, the story of Yu Lan and her child unfolds further, bringing the two arcs — past and present — into a complete circle. And Nick won't be prepared for what he will find.
As the story progresses, what strikes me is how Chinese it feels despite the presence of elements of other cultures, regardless of the timeline — though it seems odd that the Chans would employ a Malay midwife for Yu Lan. The dialogue is peppered primarily with Cantonese, but the author also uses a smattering of local Hokkien and Mandarin.
Tiny hiccups aside, it doesn't feel as if Jones has thrown all her research plus the kitchen sink into this novel. She weaves in just enough of the culture to make it believable, conjuring images of old and present-day KL and walks us through the characters' day-to-day.
We choke on the smoke from incense in prayer halls, try to identify the herbs in an apothecary by smell, and chuckle at Nick's frustration with Petaling Jaya's GPS-defeating road network.
Kudos as well to the writing. We jump back and forth between two periods yet don't feel jet-lagged. And it's nicely plotted, too. The prologue describes an ill, ageing woman who's about to tell her son the truth — but is she who we think she is? At least I did, but I was proven wrong. Such twists happen several times more, and at some point, I gave up trying to solve the mystery and just go with the flow.
At some point, supernatural elements creep into both arcs. Characters start conversing with people who aren't there and begin seeing ghosts, but are they real or not? Is there a curse on Towkay Chan's household and bloodline? Is Nick's growing obsession with his ancestry being fed by more than the need to find himself? The reader is left guessing right until the end.
Overall, Yu Lan's is not a sunny story. One is reminded of the black-and-white Cantonese dramas of yore, complete with shrewish first wives, their "salty wet" husbands, and the endless tears and wails of "woe is me." Concubine-taking isn't common or as acceptable these days, but it seems as if little has changed for women over the decades — something made more disheartening in the #MeToo era.
Despite their flaws, we are reminded of and urged to acknowledge the humanity of the characters — particularly the Chans, Ho Jie and Yu Lan, even if we disagree with some of their beliefs and motives.
Some of them eventually redeem themselves (somewhat) — Madam Chan especially, who was cajoling and cursing whoever she was worshipping at an altar when she is first introduced — but only a few linger on long after the book closes.
All this, plus the girl's plight and hints of the unearthly combine to engulf one in a pale sepulchral nimbus, like that which shrouds supposedly haunted houses (and gloomy novels), bringing down temperatures and chilling spines.
I regretted reading this at night with the air conditioning on. Even so, I pressed on — like Nick — compelled to find out what became of Yu Lan, her child, and the household that became their prison.
In the end, it was all worthwhile. I feel Jones has done a good job with this novel; her in-laws would be proud. Though the modern arc feels mundane when compared with the Malaya one, probably because of one's familiarity with the former, the way the two are entwined and resolved are satisfying and worth the risk of a sleepless night haunted by long-haired, white-robed apparitions.
The Concubine's Child
Head of Zeus
*Alan Wong is an editor and book reviewer.