There are A LOT of Malaysia books out there. And I did NOT read any of them before we decided to move here. I’m not bragging about that smart move of mine, just being honest. But in all fairness, we decided to move in December and left Chicago in August, so we were kind of busy.
I guess I did read a couple of books about our new home if you count a Malaysia guide book or the Lonely Planet about Penang. But I’m not talking about a Malaysia travel book. I’m talking about a novel, something spellbinding that leaves you breathless and gives you all the feels.
As soon as I got here, I thought it might be a good idea to learn something about my newly adopted home. Brilliant, huh? It’s not like I read the history part of any of those guide books. And so began my quest to read Malaysia books that could teach me something and keep me entertained.
For that very reason, historical fiction is my jam. I’ve tried a few history books about Malaysia and wanted to gouge my eyes out within the first five pages, but I tried.
There is no better way to learn about a country than to read books that transport you there. It satisfies my lust for travel, and it also quells it when we can’t.
So here is a small list with some big books that you should def read – and they are all written by Malaysian writers.
1. Gift of Rain
By Tan Twan Eng
“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.” ― Tan Twan Eng
This was the first Malaysia book I read, and it gripped me right from the start. I found myself rereading specific passages – I didn’t want to miss a thing. Also, the story takes place in Penang (it’s where Tan Twan Eng is from) and has the names of influential families in it, so it’s familiar to me. However, that doesn’t matter, the book stands on it’s own, regardless if you’ve ever been to Penang.
It begins in 1939 with Phillip Hutton, a half-English, half-Chinese Malaysian teenager who doesn’t fit in. He befriends a Japanese man living on an island just offshore – which supposedly is the island I look at every day from my balcony. Endo-San becomes his mentor and a significant influence on his life. He teaches him an appreciation of Japanese culture, language, and the art of aikido.
When the Japanese invade the island, Phillip has devastating choices to make to protect his family. All of a sudden, the English-Chinese-Malaysian kid with a Japanese mentor is even more conflicted. Where do his loyalties lie?
It’s a story of a country divided with a web of cruelty, courage, love, and perseverance woven through it. It’s historical fiction, and what he described happening here during the war is factually correct. That makes the story all the more devastating and fascinating at once.
“The world goes by, the young and the hopeful, all head for their future. Where does that leave us? There is a misconception that we have reached our destinations the moment we grow old, but it is not a well-accepted fact that we are still travelling towards those destinations, still beyond our reach even on the day we close our eyes for the final time.” ― Tan Twan Eng
by Preeta Samarasan
“For that is what miracles are like sometimes: quiet, unheralded, unglamorous to all but the beneficiary,” ― Preeta Samarasan
Six-year-old Aasha has already had a rough life. She’s thrown off balance when Chellam, the family servant, is fired for crimes unknown. Her gramma mysteriously passes away, and her sister leaves immediately after.
The family saga is told through generations beginning with Aasha’s grandpa, who was a coolie.
There are a lot of guarded secrets in the family that get stripped away over time and with each family member. This book is a beautifully written emotional roller coaster set in Ipoh as Malaysia gains independence and tries to stand on its own.
I’m not a huge fan of books that pop back and forth through time, as this one does. If you get confused, just keep reading, it all gets cleared up as pages unfold.
“The smoke from the cement factories and the sharp odors of the pork van and the fish vendor are washed away before they can settle, but the moist air traps native sounds and smells: the staticky songs of one neighbor’s radio, the generous sweet spices of another’s simmering mutton curry. The valley feels cloistered and coddled. A quiet benevolence cups the morning in its palm.” ― Preeta Samarasan
by Selina Siak Chin Yoke
“Inside my soul there echoed the cry of a hundred elephants dying.” ― Selina Siak Chin Yoke
In the 1930’s Chinese merchants made their way along the spice route to Malaysia (then it was called Malaya). They married the local Malay women creating a hybrid culture called Peranakan. This book is about a Nyonya, or Peranakan girl (Baba is a boy) who struggles to embrace her identity.
She wants to go to school like her brother, but that isn’t in her cards. She has no choice but to become a cook and tow the cultural line.
Eventually, she marries a Chinese man and has a soccer team of kids. As she learns the culture through her cooking, she begins to envelop her family’s traditions. She realizes how important her heritage is as her kids start heading into a more Western world.
This book describes the fascinating Peranakan culture so beautifully. However, there are a lot of Manglish (Malaysian smashed with English) terms throughout the book, which makes it pretty entertaining after living here. She also uses a lot of other languages thrown in, as they do here. There is a glossary in the back to help out.
“Her ancestors would fight for her spirit, but so too would the white devils who had come to rule. They had taken first our land and then our souls.” ― Selina Siak Chin Yoke
by Tan Twan Eng
“Before me lies a voyage of a million miles, and my memory is the moonlight I will borrow to illuminate my way.” ― Tan Twan Eng
Another book by the lyrical Tan Twan Eng. There is just something about his writing that makes me swoon. It’s the little descriptions that he peppers the pages with that transport me to that very scene.
However, I must admit that this book was a little challenging for me. I’ve read it twice and this last time proved difficult. Not sure if it was the state of things or the state of me. It was just when the whole Covid thing started to set the world on fire, and I couldn’t get into it.
That being said, the first time I read it, I loved it, which is why it’s on this list.
The story takes place in 1949 in the Cameron Highlands and is told by Judge Yun Ling Teoh. She was the lone survivor of a Japanese war camp and spent her life prosecuting war criminals in court.
When she meets a Japanese gardener, she implores him to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo, the exiled gardener of the Emperor of Japan, denies Yun Ling but agrees to teach her how to create her own.
She finds herself inexplicably drawn to Aritomo, yet not really knowing who he is. In the backdrop, she is losing her memory. Guerrillas hiding in the jungle are seeking her out, and the story of how she survived the war is revealed.
“Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.” ― Tan Twan Eng
5. Rice Mother
by Rani Manicka
“They didn’t finish each other’s sentences, rather it was the pauses they shared.” ― Rani Manicka
Lakshmi spent her early years running barefoot and carefree in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Until one day, her mom marries her off to a wealthy 37-year-old Malaysian. She crosses the ocean, excited to start her new life in her husband’s palace. Except she’s been hoodwinked. He is broke, she is pregnant, and doesn’t know a soul.
She gives birth year after year and becomes a force to be reckoned with. However, she has to protect her family during the horrors of the Japanese occupation of WWII. But that’s not all. Each child has layers of scars that she tries to care for in her own way through her love and betrayal, deceit and honesty.
It’s a compelling story told through the eyes of four generations of the family. It is her great-granddaughter, Nisha, who dissects the family and tries to put it back together again.
“Leaning against the doorframe, propping the heel of my left calf on my right, I listened in amazement as she sang songs I didn’t know she was hiding inside. I remember then it occurred to me that Mom was like the ocean. Deep and full of unknown things. I was even afraid I would never get to the bottom of it. I wanted to be a stream that would one day grow into a river and one day flow into the ocean. ” ― Rani Manicka
By Tash Aw
“The gorgeous breathlessness and thrilling pulse — those are sensations that the years have layered on top of the initial emptiness, like sheet after sheet of silk covering a bare table. More than fifty years later I can only see the cloth; the table has been obscured.”
― Tash Aw
This book traces the lives of four interwoven people all telling their version of the story of Johnny Lim. Johnny is a textile merchant and hero who fought the Japanese when they invaded.
His son, Jasper, believes his father is a collaborator and a betrayer of the people he so claims to serve. Is the factory a front for all the illegal businesses that go on behind closed doors? Or does it really help the people?
Then there is Johnny’s wife, the beautiful Snow Soong who dies giving birth to Jasper. And who Kunichika, a Japanese officer, and Peter an Englishman are in love with. The webs of love, deceit, and cultural tensions are woven throughout.
Johnny is linked to them all, but no one really knows who he is, or do they?
“…he returned to his barricaded silence, locking me out of his world. The unfathomable, inscrutable East, I thought. I was cut adrift from the shores of understanding. The sea spread itself before me, leading to a blank, blank horizon.”
― Tash Aw
by Yangsze Choo
“No, the dream-eater is a ghost animal. If you have nightmares, you can call it three times to eat the bad dreams. But you have to be careful. If you call it too often it will also gobble up your hopes and ambitions.” ― Yangsze Choo
Meet Ji Lin, a young Malaysian girl in the 1930’s dreaming the impossible: to become a doctor. To pay off her mom’s mahjong debts, she secretly works in a dancehall. When her partner gives her a severed finger, understandably, she freaks out. As a superstitious Chinese girl (or anyone for that matter), she has to figure out who the finger belongs to and reunite it with its other four.
Meet Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy whose master died missing one finger. His dying wish was to be buried with his finger within 49 days, or according to tradition, his soul will roam the earth forever.
And to make this peculiar Malaysian book even more unique, there is a tiger causing mayhem in the town.
This book is a New York Times Bestseller and one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks. It’s not a childish fantasy or YA book. It’s real-world blended with the supernatural bound by mythology all wrapped up in one.
“That’s where the were-tigers live, the harriman radian who change their shapes. Some people say that they’re beasts possessed by the souls of dead people.” ― Yangsze Choo
More Malaysia Books to read:
These three on next on my list. Not sure they’ll leave me breathless, but ya never know. I’ll report back.
by Tom Wright
This book tells the story of the biggest financial heist in history. It’s the story of the 1MDB scandal – how Jlo Ho (a social-climbing Malaysian ) and Goldman Sachs swindled 5 Billion, that’s with a B, right out from under the public eye.
by Paul Theroux
An American consul stationed in a small Malaysian town is supposed to close his post in the 1970s. It tells the stories of the unique people of all ethnicities that he meets during the post-colonial era.
by Boris Hembry
This a true story of jungle operations and spies in 1930’s Malaysia.
Clearly from the pic above, I’m an e-reader kinda girl. I could NOT live without it. I currently have a Nook from Barnes and Noble, but as soon as it goes kaput I’ll be buying this Kindle. If you still read paperbacks, I get it, but if you travel, e-readers are where it’s at!
So what do you think? Have you read any of these books? What’s your fave Malaysia book? Tell me in the comments below!
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