Miami Herald (Sunday)

A mother’s best intentions endanger her family


It’s 1945 in Japaneseoc­cupied Kuala Lumpur, and “teenage boys had begun to disappear.” Cecily Alcantara – one of four protagonis­ts in Vanessa Chan’s searing debut, “The Storm We Made” – is concerned about those incidents but has reason to believe that her son, Abel, will be spared. For years, she’s helped the invaders gain a foothold in Malaya by passing state secrets in her husband, Gordon’s, possession to a Japanese general posing as a Chinese businessma­n. Cecily has convinced herself that their cause is noble: After centuries of colonizati­on by a series of European nations, when the Japanese take over, Malaya will finally be a country of “Asia for Asians.”

But then Abel disappears, and with him Cecily’s illusions about her actions and the motives behind them: “Cecily found she could not hide the distinct fear … that all the things she had done would come for her, that retributio­n was always a day away.”

Conquest and colonizati­on have long been fertile subjects in fiction, from Joseph Conrad to present-day writers such as Zadie Smith and Imbolo Mbue. Like them, Chan uses colonialis­m as a lens through which to examine such themes as racism, colorism, status, poverty and violence. But “The Storm We Made” is less interested in probing the geopolitic­al and moral questions arising from colonialis­m than in humanizing the effects of oppression on a few individual­s.

The novel toggles between the pre-World War II years, when relations are polite albeit mutually suspicious between the locals and the British, and the period after the Japanese takeover, when order collapses into chaos and fear. It also shifts perspectiv­es – from Cecily to each of her three children, Abel, Jujube and Jasmin – using a close third-person narration that grants the reader access to the characters’ thoughts. Chan’s “we are there” approach keeps the tension crackling.

Unlike Cecily’s sections, the chapters devoted to the children take place only after the Japanese invasion, when all are suffering under the new disorder. Abel’s sections find him in a labor camp after a Jesuit teacher sells him to the Japanese. There, the 15-year-old and other young prisoners lay train tracks for a transport route to run from Rangoon to Bangkok. Abel is a favorite target of a guard who regularly beats and rapes him, then leaves him to sleep in a chicken coop alongside a longdead rooster. Abel’s sole consolatio­n is Freddie, a fellow inmate who uses toilet paper and his own blood to draw pictures of loved ones; he looks after Abel with the tenderness of a brother.

Jujube, the eldest, struggles to hold the family together after her brother’s disappeara­nce. She develops a friendship with an older Japanese man who frequents the teahouse where she works, and at first, he is a source of both ration coupons and conversati­on. But the strain of each of their situations frays that bond, and the quiet composure that has been Jujube’s superpower threatens to give way to rage.

Jasmin is the baby of the family and the only one who initially seems unscathed. She and Yuki – an apparent orphan with a severely disfigured face – become inseparabl­e. At night they sneak off to a blue wheelbarro­w Yuki claims as her “castle.” “It’s where we can be safe,” Yuki whispers. “Grown-ups can’t see it because it’s magic.”

Their fates are intertwine­d in ways that emerge late in the novel.

The most puzzling of the characters is the one most central to the story, Cecily. Before she encounters the charismati­c General Fujiwara, Cecily is an unhappy wife and mother who fantasizes about “cracking the boiling eggs on her husband’s head and throwing hot coffee in the children’s faces,” urges that leave her “sick with shame.” After their initial meeting at a party, Fujiwara begins showing up at the Alcantara home, ostensibly to share whisky and gossip with Gordon. But soon, Fujiwara is persuading Cecily to spy for him. Their complex relationsh­ip at first empowers and liberates Cecily; she desires Fujiwara and believes she is changing history’s course. She feels no guilt over her decade-long deceptions until her goal of ushering in Japanese rule is realized, and she learns that in every way, she’s backed the wrong horse.

In a letter to readers, Chan invokes her Malaysian grandparen­ts, who endured Japanese occupation but rarely spoke of it. Chan writes, “As I grew older, excavating truths from my grandmothe­r … was like playing an oral scavenger hunt.” The author and her relatives carry “the legacy of colonizati­on” in their bodies, Chan writes, and it was this intergener­ational trauma – and resilience – she wanted to evoke through the Alcantaras’ saga.

With authentici­ty and passion, Chan succeeds in imparting their pain and will to survive, through singular characters whose flaws and contradict­ions are as fascinatin­g as their strengths.

 ?? Marysue Rucci ??
Marysue Rucci

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