A Different Sky, by Meira Chand.
A Different Sky, by Meira Chand. Random House UK (2011), Paperback, 488 pages.
A big historical novel spanning the lives of Indian, Chinese, and Eurasian families living in Singapore before, during, and after World War II.
Meira Chand is an accomplished storyteller, able to weave her big cast of characters into a coherent plot. Her style is simple and straight forward, and reflects extensive knowledge of places and times recreated in her fiction. She is the daughter of Indian and Swiss parents. As an adult she has lived for extended times in Japan and India and written historical novels set in both. She now lives in Singapore, and has written A Different Sky about people from various races and cultures who lived there during a critical point of historic change.
To Chand, Singapore is not a place with traditions and cultures of its own. Instead it is a place where people have come from all directions to try and achieve their dreams. By the 1920s, when her novel begins, it had become home to various groups each living within their own enclaves. Her novel highlights the stories of families from three of these groups. A wealthy Chinese family strictly maintains its traditional ways, but faces financial decline. A young man from Indian who has arrived in the city with nothing begins his successful pursuit of wealth. A Eurasian widow with a son and a daughter runs a boarding house for English men working in Singapore. Like other Eurasians, her family is descended from centuries of Malayans and European traders. British and Japanese characters weave in and out of the narrative. As individuals, they are treated sympathetically, even when others of their nationalities act as villains.
World War II had a profound impact on Singapore and on the families at the heart of Chand’s novel. When the British were driven from the city, the Japanese established a government willing to torture and kill. Suffering is great, touching the families on whom Chand focuses. Loyalties are not always black and white, however. Strange alliances are created, including those who see Japan as a help in ridding the region of the British. When the Japanese are defeated and run out of the city, the British try to re-establish their former dominance. Instead, they encounter resistance from various groups wanting local independence and an end to the inequality that thrived under British dominance. Reformers, socialists and communists disagree on what they wanted, creating new lines of conflict. Ethnic boundaries softened. Those who had suffered torture, been forced into hard labor, or sought refuge among the communists struggled to recover from their traumas. But even for them, change is happening. Whatever the future, Singapore and its residents were moving forward under “A Different Sky.”
Chand writes the type of historical fiction that does more than use historical events as a backdrop. She structures her fiction around actual historical events and includes a few individuals who emerge from the historical record. She differentiates herself from historians, however.
Academic record and scholarly investigation constructs the shape of the past as accurately as can be done. Historical fiction attempts to create a sense of experience of that past, to bring it alive in the present and to show its enduring relevance. Knowing almost nothing about Southeast Asia, I was grateful for her ability to achieve this goal. I learned a great deal about the time and place about which she writes. Chand’s novel also reveals how complex and messy history can be and how simplistic our historical categories often are. This lesson is relevant today as we interact with an expanded range of peoples who are both members of particular historical traditions and individuals who may or may not reflect those traditions, values and practices.
I heartily recommend A Different Sky to all readers who enjoy epic historical fiction that helps them understand different times and places. I especially recommend it to those interested in Singapore, in World War II, or in the mix of people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific more generally. It belongs on my growing list of books that deal with what happens to families when war arrives at their door.