World War II might be the most popular subject for historical fiction, but Vanessa Chan’s debut, “The Storm We Made,” defies the typical focus on the Western front and a clear-cut distinction between good and evil that characterizes many books.
Chan’s heartbreaking story of a family riven by war takes place in Malaya (now called Malaysia) and relies on her extensive research into the time period and her family’s suffering — including her grandmother’s brother’s kidnapping by the Japanese Army — to weave together two strands. One timeline takes place in 1935, when Malaya is under British colonial rule and Chan’s protagonist becomes an unlikely spy for the Japanese, and the other occurs in 1945, when Japan has conquered the peninsula and the Malayan people are kept in misery by their latest rulers.
“Teenage boys had begun to disappear,” Chan writes as the novel opens in 1945. Cecily Alcantara guards her three children nervously, particularly middle child Abel, whose Eurasian descent is evident in his light brown hair. Three years into the Japanese occupation, Chan writes that Cecily’s “hope for a better colonizer was short-lived” and notes “the Japanese occupiers killed more people in three years than the British colonizers had in fifty.” Abel is abducted on his 15th birthday. Cecily worries “all the things she had done would come for her, that retribution was always a day away.”
With Abel gone, Chan jumps to 1935 and reveals why Cecily feels such guilt. When the British were in power, Cecily’s husband, Gordon, held a bureaucratic position in the colonial government that afforded them social status and invitations to parties with British officials. Cecily, then a dissatisfied mother of two, fell for a charming man who posed as an affable Hong Kong merchant but, in fact, was a Japanese officer named Fujiwara, who convinced her to spy on Gordon’s work. Attracted to Fujiwara, Cecilyalso believed in his vision for “a world in which Asians could determine their own future.”
Cecily’s children alternate as the focus of the 1945 timeline. Abel is being held in a grim Japanese work camp, where he is tortured and raped. Cecily tries to safeguard her 7-year-old, Jasmin, by tucking her in the basement; Chan details the horrors of “comfort stations” in which Malayan women are trafficked into sex service for the Japanese military. Chillingly, “recruiters preferred younger girls, pre-pubescent, as they lay more still and did not get pregnant.” Cecily’s oldest daughter, steadfast Jujube, tries to hold the family together.
Chan deftly parcels out secrets in the 1935 sections, which depict Cecily as a vigorous and unconventional woman in whom “discontent was a constant state of being.”
Chan’s chronicles of atrocities against Malayan children serve as a bracing reminder that despite the way World War II is often depicted in fiction, it was not romantic. “The Storm We Made” invites reflection about who should be considered the main characters of this war. It’s clear that people in every locale affected by its brutalities deserve to be protagonists, and Chan’s novel proves there are still fresh perspectives to reveal.
The Storm We Made
By: Vanessa Chan.
Publisher: Marysue Rucci Books, 352 pages, $27.
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