Review Blog

Dec 04 2017

The inverted banyan tree, and the way thither by J.K. Asher

cover image

Atlantis Books, 2017. ISBN 9781925117950
(Age: Adult) Recommended. Shifting scenes of 1944 Japanese occupied Malaya, British colonial Malaya of the 1950s, and then "Visit Malaysia 1985", present a twisting story of tiger hunts, murder, ritual ceremonies, spirit guides, war crimes, love relationships, extremist terrorism, life and death. Although at times confusing, a picture is gradually built up of the complex relationships of the British, Portuguese, Japanese, Hindu Indian, Chinese, and indigenous Malay peoples that are woven together in a story that reveals the hopes, beliefs, love, pain and suffering of them all. At the heart of it is a story that is in many ways prescient of the present day turmoil of fundamentalist terrorist hijacking of Muslim religion, fuelled by Western imperialism. It is sobering to think that we do not seem to learn anything from history.
The protagonist, Alistair, is British, slightly resentful that he has not achieved the status and success of fellow traveller to Malaysia, the businessman Ashman. Alistair meets and falls in love with Ivy, a Serani or Eurasian, and befriends Dom, another Serani, torn between Muslim and Christian, seeking guidance from the Spirit Guide. Clearly Alistair is sensitive and understanding of the nuances of relationships between the different cultural groups, but is caught in the bureaucracy of the duties assigned to him by his British superiors, intent on carving up the sacred Tiger Sanctuary. That oblivious sense of superiority on the part of the colonisers is what leads to the hostage and suicide plan of the extremist, Jihad, member of the Al-Sijjin sect.
There are many other threads to this story: the unerring love between Ismael and his teenage saviour Mariam; the haunted Japanese war criminal seeking reparation by returning stolen artefacts; the gifted student Isa cut down by ritualistic murderers; spiritualist Ummah seeking the best solution for his people; and so many more, that on finishing the book, I just wanted to start it all over again to better understand and appreciate all the relationships.
This is a complex book that explores relationships between cultures, just as the banyan tree creates intertwined trunks, roots, and branches; it is deserving of more than one reading.
Helen Eddy

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