Breaking the Tongue

Vyvyane Loh’s first book, Breaking the Tongue, is set in her birthplace, the former British colony f Singapore, at the start of World War II. A prisoner is being tortured—Claude Lim, a Chinese youth who has been captured by Japanese soldiers. Flashbacks reveal that Claude has already lost his own culture; educated according to the wishes of his fiercely pro-British father and beautiful, masochistic mother, Claude and his sister can neither read nor speak Chinese, only English. In contrast, his indomitable Grandma Siok takes great pride in her ancestry. When she brings the boy to an instructive exhibit of the Ten Courts of Hell—a kind of Chinese Inferno—he sees an unfortunate man whose tongue is being torn out, an image that forever haunts him.

The Lims’ household (Chinese servant, Thai cook, Malayan gardener) mirrors the polyglot culture of Singapore, based on an awareness of race and class, but is turned on its head by war. Han Ling-li, a well-trained young nurse who cares for injured refugees and moves easily in this complex society, becomes an unlikely woman warrior. She is also an undercover agent for the embattled resistance that supports China’s ongoing war with Japan, a struggle which quickly broadens into worldwide conflict after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Loh brilliantly recreates the wartime ambience of Southeast Asia and its atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. She offers a gripping portrait of the fall of Singapore and its subsequent looting by the drunken Australian troops sent to defend it. One cares deeply about these people, their customs, and their shattered lives. Well written, objective yet sympathetic, this book is a gem.