We, The Survivors

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

I'm abandoning this one at 25%. Truthfully, I can't quite put my finger on why it isn't grabbing me, but it isn't. I think partly it's that there's no real indication of a story, up to this point anyway - simply a long rambling description of the narrator's childhood mixed with a good deal of thinly disguised polemics about the poverty of his community. Partly, it's because I don't believe the narrator's voice - he is supposedly uneducated but certainly doesn't talk as if he is. And partly it's because, while the writing is fine, it's unremarkable.

Maybe a coherent plot emerges later on, but too late for me. I won't be posting an online review of this one since I don't feel I have anything particularly relevant to say about it.
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We, The Survivors reminded me of an Indian novel I read a few years ago, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Both books are narrated by a murderer after the crime has taken place and consist of the culprit explaining his disadvantaged life story and how it led him to commit such an awful deed. In We, The Survivors, Ah Hock is speaking to a journalist who is going to write his story for publication in a true crime book. We don't actually get to see this journalist until later in the novel so I felt as though Ah Hock was speaking directly to me. He is an engaging narrator with an unusual story to tell so We, The Survivors was, for me, a faster read than expected because I kept making excuses to keep on reading!

I was intrigued by the different portrayal of immigration in this story. Ah Hock frequently describes himself as a 'local boy' and states that his having to almost continually lived near where he grew up has given him some kind of advantage. Yet his family only fairly recently arrived as refugees from China. He is a third-generation immigrant to Malaysia so while he sees the current Bangladeshi and Rohinga migrants as desperate people who can be exploited, his own situation isn't far removed from the same straits. I could draw parallels between Malaysia and Britain (or America) where snap judgements are made about people based pretty much only on their skin tone and perceived ancestry.

We, The Survivors is quite a dark novel which depicts how carelessly awful people can be to each other when we lose a sense of shared humanity. A safe, comfortable existence is surprisingly precarious especially in such parts of the world where war or natural disasters can wipe out someone's home or livelihood overnight with no chance of recompense. Hard work alone often isn't enough for success when luck or destiny seems to be pulling in the other direction, and destiny can be patient as Ah Hock finds out.
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‘But the truth is that there is no because. And because there is no because, there is also no why.’

Tash Aw’s new novel is about the choices we make, those little decisions that come to direct the path of our lives, leading us to question everything. It is about the illusion of such a choice, as our central character frequently comes to the conclusion that our fate is destined, that actually we are simply just part of some messed-up plan and the best we can do is survive.

Lee Hock Lye, known as Ah Hock, has killed a man. Spending 3 years in prison he is now living a quiet, secluded life until an American research student named Tan Su-Min gets in touch asking to interview him. He agrees, and what we have in the book is a series of meetings and conversations wherein Ah Hock tells his story, from his childhood, marriage and work, until the moment he killed someone: ‘You want me to talk about life, but all I’ve talked about is failure, as if they’re the same thing.’ Hock is a Chinese-Malay, and he moves from his rural childhood surroundings to the bustle of Kuala Lumpur and back again, his life intersecting with his childhood friend Keong. This is a story of family and friendship, but with some big issues crowding in: illegal immigrants and forced labour; the economics of big business and modernisation; globalisation and the widening gulf between the rich and poor. As Hock tells his story we also get to know more about his interviewer, a ‘militant queer’ (as she calls herself towards the end) whose personal life is falling apart. The relationship between the two develops into a friendship, and their interaction is a nice counterbalance to those relationships in Hock’s previous life, with his (now) ex-wife Jenny and with Keong.

Reminiscent of Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ or, more recently, Tanguy Viel’s ‘Article 353’, this is a philosophical, nay existential, examination of a human being, and of the consequences of his actions. Timely, also, in its portrayal of the Asian economic boom and the darker side of capitalism’s headlong rush to the future. Above all it is a personal story of one man, caught in circumstances from which he cannot escape: ‘We believe in life’s power to iron out the kinks in our existence and make things turn out OK.’

A subtle, powerful novel by the very talented Tash Aw, one which I liked, yes, but one which leaves an after-impression long afterwards, and which will make you think – always a good thing. A highly recommended 4 stars. 

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
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Ah Hock is telling his life story to a writer. He is an ethnic Chinese Malay, has spent most of his life tantalisingly close to the economic miracle of Kuala Lumpur, and has been released from prison for killing a Bangladeshi migrant. 

This is a story of life on the edge, mostly in a world of petty crime, illegal migrant workers and aspirations of a middle class life. But Ah Hock knows that while he was never great at school, his strength is in people management - emotional intelligence, if you will. 

Through various phases of his life, failing to get on with his ailing mother, farmed out to various relatives, running the streets with his soulmate Keong. The lack of stability drives Ah Hock (with very little protestation) into illegality, and this leaves Ah Hock trapped in an underworld through debts, obligations and honour. 

Yet, Ah Hock does have some contact with the aspirations of a developing Malaysia. His wife is a make-up saleswoman working on a pyramid selling scheme, dreaming of cars and houses. 

The novel is told in an engaging way and for the first half, it feels lively and quirky - offering non-linear vignettes of life in a nation that is changing, switching back and forth between the past and the present day conversation with the writer. It feels as though the writer represents the new society and Ah Hock the old - with each trying to reconcile themselves with the other. 

But by about half way, the novel feels like it is lacking direction. It is all building up to the reveal about the killing - with little details being drip fed - but the non-linear narration coupled with the chaotic changes in Ah Hock's life does make the reader feel that this is more a collection of short works than a single life story. 

Four stars for a novel that starts well and drifts - but with a stronger narrative life it could have been five.
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Thanks to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Every so often you come across a book that grips you from start to finish. This is one of those books. The novel follows the story of a Malaysian man, Ah Hock, and how he came to be a convicted murderer. Ah Hock relates his life story to a young student who plans to write a book about Ah Hock's life. The narrative jumps back and forth in time to put flesh on the bones of Ah Hock's life and what circumstances led him to murder a migrant worker.

Something that really stuck out for me in this book was the complexity of the relationships between the characters. One of the key relationships in the novel is between Ah Hock and his friend, Keong. This relationship is very complicated and if anything, extremely toxic. I was often left wondering why they were friends at all. I also found the relationship between Ah Hock and his biographer interesting as they came from two hugely different backgrounds both economically and educationally. In particular, I really loved the dynamic between Ah Hock and his mother and these scenes were my favourite in the book. The struggles they endured, the sacrifices made and the bond between mother and child was very touching.

The book also explores the tensions between the Malaysian locals and the transitory and poorly treated migrant workers. The details of their plight don't make for easy reading but, it hits home as to the true life realities of these people's lives and the dehumanisation they suffer. 

Wider issues around Globalisation, the gulf between rich and poor, the realities of living in poverty, the journey from childhood to adulthood, the seedier underbelly of society and the push and pull of Village vs City are also explored in the context of Ah Hock's story.

The Malaysian setting felt vibrant, contemporary and real and the main character's voice was credible and compelling. 

Overall, I'd say that this was one of those novels you come across every so often that are just about perfect. Read it, you won't regret doing so.
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After reading the latest compelling and disturbing novel by previously long listed Man Booker Malaysian novelist Tash Aw one was immediately reminded of Albert Camus's L’Étranger with its theme of alienation and the sense that both main characters were strangers in their respective societies. We, The Survivors also questions whether life is a series of events determined by chance and choices made at that time, some good, some bad or instead whether an individual's outcome is predetermined and there is little one can do to change this. This raises the whole philosophical debate regarding the merits of existentialism.

The novel takes the form of a first person narration by way of an interview given over several days by Ah Hock to a journalist, the contents of which will later be turned into a book. We know from the start of the novel that An Hock has been released from prison after serving a sentence for murder but we are unaware of the circumstances surrounding it. An Hock will now recount his life and from this the reader will gain an understanding of the factors that have led to his violent act. 

This book takes an insightful and uncompromising look at Malaysian society and at how its citizens are divided along strictly ethnic lines with Ah Hock being from the Chinese community. Underpinning the economy and at the bottom of society are the vast armies of exploited migrant workers, many of them illegal immigrants and lacking basic rights. As we discover, this exploitation of  labour will be the main contributory factor to the murder. The book also looks at the corruption endemic throughout society and the ruthlessness of a seemingly unregulated economy. There is also mention of the increased dominance of palm oil production.

I really liked this book as it shows how an average man just trying to survive in a changing world can end up committing an act of extreme violence. Although set in Malaysia the book has universal themes that can be seen almost anyway. A powerful and  poignant read.
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Such a powerful book, poignant prose and moments; Aw's novel explores the theme of struggle and identity that is both fictitious and grounded in reality.
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Thank you net galley.. A powerful book from the author of "Map of the Invisible World". The book explores questions of identity and struggle in a migrant's life. The writing is poignant and full of empathy.
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* I don't think I have enough of a way with words to describe what was so good about this book.
Probably good isn't even right.
Moving...what was so moving about this book.
Telling the story of one man,who we know from the beginning is a murderer, but essentially is just an average man who struggles every day with life.
As would we all in these conditions.
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