All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Heart Radical – Boyd Anderson

Heart RadicalThe Heart Radical
Boyd Anderson
Random House AU
2014, 432p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Su-Lin Tan is a human rights lawyer working in London but in 1951 she was an 8yo Malay-Chinese girl watching her father, also a lawyer as he defended people in impossible situations. One case that has always stuck in her mind was the one of Toh Kei, a Communist jungle rebel leader who was accused of two murders that helped spark what was termed as ‘The Emergency’. Toh Kei’s lover was Dr Anna Thumboo and Su-Lin spent some time with Anna’s son, Paris Thumboo sitting beside them as her father defended Toh Kei in court.

When she sees him deliver a lecture in London it is 50 years later. She barely recognises him but she introduces herself to him and he remembers her. He also ends up giving her his mother’s personal account of what happened to her when she was captured by the Japanese for treating the rebels medical problems. Dr Thumboo was incarcerated for a length of time, away from her then very young infant son, tortured and treated appallingly. The doctor first treated the rebels in their war against Japanese occupation, sewing up bullet wounds and helping administer medications for malaria and some of the more debilitating jungle fevers. Toh Kei was brought to her and in order to heal him, he had to stay under her care for several weeks. He would return periodically for more treatment or with others and he and Anna developed a relationship.

In the present day, Paris gives the memoir to Su-Lin and asks for her thoughts. Very busy with a human rights case going before a court in London, Su-Lin reads the story in bits and pieces, immersing herself in another side of a time she remembers from her childhood.

One thing I always note when I read historical fiction/historical books based on true events is how appallingly bad my general knowledge of history is. I only did history twice in school, once in year 7 (Australian history) and once in year 8 (British history, WW history) so really – there’s a lot of gaps there. Sometimes I manage to educate myself through reading books and picking up pieces of information and then supplementing that with research after. The danger in doing this though is that many books are based on real events but change things to suit the story etc. You can end up wondering what is true and what isn’t. My knowledge of Asian history is even poorer than my general history knowledge – to be honest I’d never even heard of The Emergency before I read this book (so termed because the insurers for the tin and rubber industries wouldn’t cover any losses if it was determined a “war”).

To be honest, what happened is far too complicated to go into during this review but briefly, after the end of WW2 when Britain was trying to repair the Malayan economy and situation, they banned the leftist and communist parties. This led to the retreat of the Malayan Communist Party to the rural area, up into the jungle. They formed the MNLA, also known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA), or the Malayan People’s Liberation Army (MPLA) and began using guerilla tactics against the Commonwealth. In this novel, Toh Kei is a leader of such a guerilla group, living with his band of soldiers high up in the jungle and targeting resources such as the tin mines and rubber plantations. Anna Thumboo lived in a remote village treating the locals and was occasionally called upon to discreetly treat the rebels both under Japanese occupation and later on under British colonial rule when they were trying to abolish the communists.

This is a story in many parts – Su-Lin’s childhood, Anna’s life especially during the Japanese occupation and then later during “The Emergency” and the present day with Paris and Su-Lin. Of all of these perspectives, the one that fascinated me the most was Anna. I wish that her portion of the book had been greater – I’d have loved to get deeper into her treating of the rebels, her life in that small village when the Japanese were threatening, even more when she was captured and especially more about her relationship with Toh Kei. We get brief accounts in her memoirs, very brief really and she seems to censor herself because she’s writing for Paris to read it in the future. I could’ve read a whole book on Anna’s life from the time her husband was taken until the end, so interested in her as a character was I. I also enjoyed Su-Lin’s narrative of her childhood – she was a bright and interesting girl and it’s no surprise that she went on to such a highly esteemed career.

Unfortunately the scenes from the present day dragged this book down for me. It was awkward meeting after awkward meeting where they would have some sort of misunderstanding or develop some unflattering opinion of the other but then they’d be unable to let it go and we’d just repeat pretty much the same scenario each time the book returned to the current day. I am not entirely sure why Paris gave the memoir to Su-Lin to read, if it was just because she was there, if it was because of her father or her current profession but she had a pretty lackadaisical attitude in reading it and I really just wanted the story to get back to Anna so I could find out what happened next and ultimately, what happened to her and Toh Kei.

Despite my frustrations with the present day characters and the fact that for me, it made me lose focus a bit, I did really enjoy this book overall. I found it very interesting to read about “The Emergency” and what it was like and the different thoughts behind it. Coming right at the end of WWII it was when Communist paranoia in the west was at its height and it seems that they wanted to stamp it out of anywhere they could. I did lots of reading after I finished this one to find out more about what had happened in Malaysia’s history – filling in my education gaps!

Boyd Anderson has another novel set in Asia, Singapore this time, set during the Second World War called Amber Road. Think I’ll be tracking that one down to read pretty soon.


Book #32 of 2014


The Heart Radical is the 5th book read for my Aussie Author Challenge 2014