The question of change — whom it affects and how — sits at the core of Rachel Heng’s second novel, “The Great Reclamation,” a stunning historical fiction set against the backdrop of Singapore’s struggle for independence during and after World War II. The novel is vast in scope: We are there to witness the last days of British colonial rule, the devastating consequences of the Japanese invasion (and later expulsion), land reclamation initiatives and the push toward Merdeka, the Malay term signifying freedom.
If this all sounds like a staggering amount to take in, that’s because it is. This is the lot of novels that shoulder the heavy burden of capturing and educating the reader about History with a capital H. The ones that fail let history overpower the narrative. The ones that succeed understand what all great books must do: tell a good story.
Such is the triumph of “The Great Reclamation,” a novel that investigates the price of change through the lives of the Lee family, a nucleus so intimately rendered that readers will find themselves missing the characters long after putting the book down. There is Pa, the reliable, hardworking fisherman; Ma, a stable, loving wife and mother; Uncle, a character both tragic and inevitable; Hia, the tough elder son; and Ah Boon, the younger.
It is through Ah Boon’s eyes that we experience the events of the novel. While his brother is courageous and adroit on the water, a natural heir to the family’s long history of fishing, Ah Boon fears the sea, more “pale-skinned, skittish, doe-eyed” than hardy.
But it is also Ah Boon who, in the novel’s opening, discovers a mysterious series of islands that no one else has ever encountered. The islands are confounding — they seem to appear and disappear with the moon, bringing with them scores of fish that reward the village with endless sustenance. All seems well — Ah Boon starts school, where he meets Siok Mei, a bright and strong-willed daughter of activist parents who left her with an uncle to pursue their cause, an abandonment from which Siok Mei never quite recovers.
Tragedy befalls the Lees when the Japanese Army invades in 1942, demanding that every man between 18 and 50 report to registration centers for the screening of “anti-Japanese” Chinese, a process that involves interrogation and, in the worst cases, execution. Pa and Uncle go; only Uncle comes back.
In the wake of Pa’s incomprehensible death and Britain’s return to rule following Japan’s defeat, the family is restructured: Hia sits as the man of the house while Ah Boon broods in silence: “Those were the disappearing years. Homes, belief systems, entire governments, food, people one dearly loved — Ah Boon learned then that all of it could so easily disappear, and unlike the islands, there was no way to find them again.”
As they grow older, Ah Boon and Siok Mei’s paths begin to diverge, too. Despite his growing love for her, Ah Boon realizes the impassable divide that exists between them, largely thanks to Siok Mei’s commitment to the leftist cause.
“And yet he loved her,” Heng writes in lush, assured prose. “Even as he felt her changing, he longed to take her small hand, smooth and brown as an almond, to push the heavy hair from her eyes, press his cold cheek against her warm one. … Still, the shapes of what they were to each other had already begun to calcify years before, and the longer he waited, the more difficult it became to shatter them.”
Feeling rudderless, Ah Boon goes to work for the “Gah Men” who have come into influence — “Chinese lawyers and Malay journalists, Indian union leaders and Eurasian clerks, Javanese editors and Peranakan economists … all had ambitions for what their little country could become.”
He meets Natalie, a young Chinese woman who works at the local community center. The Gah Men push for Merdeka, a venture that necessitates the destruction of surrounding villages. They tear up the earth to make way for new, fancy apartments. They alter coastlines to manually construct land.
For characters like Uncle, who fear change, the Gah Men are evil, no different from the Japanese occupiers who murdered his brother. For Ah Boon, who has always searched for a purpose in life, aligning with the Gah Men is good, honest work. This decision causes another divide between him and Siok Mei, bringing him closer to Natalie: “What was so wrong with order?” he reasons. “They could debate ideology all day long, but if he was honest with himself, it came down to a simple feeling of liking it.”
Or, as he later puts it to Uncle: “We can’t fish forever. … Things are changing.”
Modernization is coming, new flats, air-conditioning, cleaner water. But at what cost and whose expense? Throughout it all, the islands loom, a constant reminder (and eventual answer) to Ah Boon about the price of all this development. As the novel hurtles toward its maddening, heartbreaking but necessary conclusion, throwing the lives of our beloved characters, from Ah Boon to Uncle to Siok Mei, into the hands of change, we can do nothing but witness and hope.
This is an epic novel, but not for its 464-page length, nor for the impressive amount of history it covers. It is an epic for the reasons life itself is epic. “The Great Reclamation” asks the reader to confront the big things, like love and identity and loss, but it allows us to revel in the little things, too, from the buttery taste of steamed fish to the smooth surface of a rubber seed.
It is a pleasure to simply live alongside these characters. In the novel’s final pages, we ride with Ah Boon to the islands one final time. Like him, we are being carried to a larger purpose, one that will ask us to change, to sacrifice, and yes, to want to be great.
Jenny Tinghui Zhang is the author of the novel “Four Treasures of the Sky.”
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