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"The Storm We Made" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: Jan 7

Kick off the New Year with a stunning book from novelist Vanessa Chan. Her debut, “The Storm We Made,” is an absolute gem, historical fiction at its best, immersive from first page to last.

There’s simply no room for improvement in this literary page turner, certain to draw passionate fans for Chan, who writes about Malaya (present-day Malaysia), her family’s ancestral home, and the years her grandparents and others lived through, 1941-1945, when the Japanese invaded the country, taking control of Malaya, a longtime British colony.

Chan notes in her introduction how hesitant her grandparents were to talk about this period, how quiet they would become when she had questions for them.

Once you begin Chan’s novel it’s easy to understand her grandparents’ reticence—the Japanese were cruel, mistreating the Malaysians, who suffered mightily under inhumane conditions, food rations and the tragic loss of family and friends.

It's one such loss that twinges at our hearts when Chan begins her story in 1945. The main character, Cecily, a complicated woman, has fallen victim to the very men she helped put in power, the Japanese. Cecily, the mother of two daughters and a son, is wild with grief when her teenage son Abel fails to come home one day, a calamity that’s occurred to other boys in the small town over the past several years. While Cecily suffers greatly, she accepts her fate knowing “…that all the things she had done would come to her, that retribution was always a day away.”

With this stunning hook, Chan draws readers in, curious to know more about why Cecily feels the way she does. The answers lie in Cecily’s youth and early marriage, prior to the Japanese takeover when the British upper crust hosted lavish parties, inviting Malaysians who held positions of prestige to their forays. Among the guests were Cecily and her husband Gordon, who worked for the government, oblivious to his wife’s intel service to Fujiwara, the powerful Japanese general who defeated the British, taking over Malaysia for the Japanese.

To curb dissatisfaction with her unfulfilling marriage to Gordon, and the burden of mothering two young children, Cecily becomes a spy for Fujiwara, their relationship eventually becoming physical, a need as vital to Cecily as food and water. Though serving the general puts her in grave danger, and threatens her loss of family, “Espionage suited Cecily.”

The narrative shifts back and forward in history, chapters delineated by the date and the country occupying Malaya at the time. Readers learn what’s happening to Cecily’s children, Abel, Jujube and to a third daughter Jasmine, born later, who has a pivotal role in the novel. Additional characters are richly drawn but it’s Cecily who readers will ponder, a difficult woman to understand who puts her needs before her family’s, her addiction to Fujiwara costing her more than she could ever have imagined.

“The Storm We Made” bursts onto the literary scene setting a high bar for other historical fiction being released this year. It’s a brilliant beginning for Chan, a novelist who shows expertise in creating complex characters, juggling several story arcs with aplomb, and providing an easy-to-understand overview of a place and period in that country’s history many of us might not have known about before.



           

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