Tash Aw is the latest graduate from the East Anglian School of Creative Writing to walk away with a major honour – The Whitbread Debut Novel of the Year.
Unfortunately, this is another novel written to the modern formula of style over substance. Elements of said formula are:
1) Disguise the fact that you have very little plot by narrating the same events from different perspectives
2) Perfume your offering with excessive and overwrought symbolism
3) Deepen the superficiality of the central mystery by refusing to answer questions you raise
All of the above are frustratingly abundant in this novel – marvellous if you love this kind of writing; deeply dissatisfying if you do not.
The biggest sin ( and as the novel contains allusions to the Garden of Eden, let’s talk in those terms) is that the underlying theme of the novel is based on a cliché: the enigmatic unknowability of the East. Johnny, the focal point of the three narratives and symbol of the East, is as unknown at the end as at the beginning of the novel.
My message to the author is: if you have a story to tell, tell it. Or, if you want to write a the-real-story-is-under-the-surface novel, strive for the perfection of The Great Gatsby. Keep it short. Don’t sacrifice narrative drive for the sake of symbolism.