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28 January 2014

Boyd Anderson: The Heart Radical

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The Malayan "Emergency" through the eyes of a young girl
This is a beautifully written, well researched and frequently riveting and emotional story of two families caught up in the Japanese occupation of Malaya and later in the often now forgotten Malayan "Emergency", one of the first East-West Asian Communist conflicts to gain independence from foreign colonialism.

Su-Lin Tan, a Malayan Chinese girl, was eight years old in 1951 when she had a life-changing experience as she watched her father, esteemed defence barrister K. C. Tan, defend a controversial case where Toh Kei, the leader of the Communist jungle rebels is accused of two murders that helped to spark the Emergency. Seated beside her are Toh Kei's lover, Dr Anna Thumboo, and her six year old son Paris. Anna, a Eurasian with a Dutch father and Indian mother, had known Toh Kei since the Japanese occupation when she provided medical care for his anti-Japanese resistance group and later on when he went back into the jungle to fight for freedom from British colonial rule.

Anderson skilfully explores contrasting cultures and outlooks in Malaya during and after the war, especially how the British rulers handled taking back control of their old colony after the Japanese have left. Toh Kei changes from a British decorated hero of the anti-Japanese resistance to a hunted leader of the "Communist Terrorists" fighting for Malayan independence from the British.

More than fifty years later Su-Lin Tan is an esteemed human rights lawyer in England, specialising in human rights cases. She barely recognises Professor Paris Thumboo when he delivers a history lecture in London. Despite the wide difference in their worlds since they last met, Paris gives Su-Lin a copy of his mother's personal account to him of her torture by the Japanese and her relationship with Toh Kei and asks Su-Lin for her reactions.

The story is written in the present and the past through the eyes of Su-Lin, Paris and Anna Thumboo slowly taking the reader into the "Japanese Time" and "The Emergency". It explores the education and development of Su-Lin in both Western and Chinese ways and languages and the influence of her father which starts a journey of discovery of what she wants to do in the world to fight for what she believes in, despite the odds.

Boyd Anderson has written a well-researched, sometimes provocative and uplifting story that  skilfully explores contrasting cultures in Malaya and their views of the world. It has characters to care about and to hate, and a compelling understanding and sense of Malaya at its most difficult times. I would highly recommended it to those who enjoy reading the best in historical literary fiction.

Anderson is an Australian author of Amber Road, which was set in Singapore during WWII which is now on my must-read list. It fascinates me that so many talented contemporary Australian authors can write such meaningful novels about fairly recent history in their near neighbours.

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