Book Review: ‘Tanamera’ – Noel Barber
First Published in The United Kingdom in 1981.
Who should read this book?
- Readers who demand on the edge action from a book that they can’t put down.
- Readers that want a genuine love tale that transcends all odds. Odds of tradition, politics, and war; above all, the biggest human obstacle – fear
- Readers who are attracted to the history of Malaysia and its British Colonial masters and more specifically Singapore from the years of 1921 through 1948.
- Readers who are fascinated by Great Britain at the height of its colonial glory and the master of that place and the time in which it existed; the folly of colonialism and its depressing impact on the indigenous people of that land.
- Finally the overshadowing of all this by the life-changing effects on everyday people caught in the grip of the greatest war in human history.
At the center of this fascinating, exciting, and fast-moving story are the Dexter and Soong Families.
It is said that “East is East and West is West, our worlds are far apart…..” Commerce is a necessary bridge between these two points, where those who are driven by the excitement of accumulating wealth, will take measured risks to make their sure their gain.
So it was with the Soong’s of the East and the Dexter’s of the West. Both families fabulously wealthy, even by today’s standards. The Soong’s being astute global traders, the Dexter’s, Tin Miners, Shippers, and owners of vast Rubber Plantations. These commodities carried the two families through both the lean and the fat years.
The initial setting for this love story in yearlong steamy Singapore was the child-like friendship of two eight-year-old children, Julie Soong and Johnnie Dexter.
Under the watchful eye of Mr. Soong, who because of stringent Chinese tradition and the worst of Chinese fears – loss of face, kept his daughter on a very short and tight rein.
The two eight-year-olds in their innocence were unaware of the eyes that guarded their play. Neither were they aware that their destiny was sealed and no tradition, no matter how strong, would alter that course. Neither would separation, war, or terror alter the course either.
Life in the early colonial years of Singapore was one endless round of parties, picnics, restauranting, tennis, and swimming. It might be said that life for the European Colonialists was the epitome of ‘dolce vita’.
The story moves swiftly through the lives of the book’s many and interesting characters, especially in the Dexter family, and though not too deep a look into the Soong’s, there is always their presence.
The years of innocence with both Johnny and Julie soon give way to a deep and forbidden romantic relationship between the two. A family member and a business contact pave the way for a secret hideout in an apartment block, belonging to one of them, the use of which, fans the flames of the strong sensuous natures of the two young lovers.
Then the relationship and secret activities of the young lovers are discovered by Mr. Soong and Julie is banished from home and sent to live in the United States with her estranged mother. Johnny is devastated.
All these activities take place to the backdrop of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany and the growing menace of the clandestine plans of Japan to invade Malaysia. These events are overshadowed by an arrogant British Colonial Government that did not believe that anyone on earth would dare take on the might of His Majesty’s Military power.
Under the premise of this belief, the Colonial Singaporeans continue with their lifestyle of parties, soirées, and sporting activities.
Johnny runs the family business as his parents move to London to run the business interests there.
The colonial government continues to run Malaysia from Singapore in its blinkered beliefs, but all the while, European women and children are being shipped out to various parts of the world for their safety. The European men remain with all the indigenous Malaysian and Chinese, awaiting the now imminent arrival of the Japanese army.
Onto this stage, Julie returns to Singapore from America and starts up her affair with Johnny once more. She is taken to one of the family rubber plantations where she moves in with Johnny’s sister, her family, and Johnny visits with her every weekend.
Johnny is classified as a key person because of the family business and therefore, although he wants to sign up for the military, is not permitted to do so. However, he is surreptitiously conscripted into an undercover military unit and receives Special Services training for jungle warfare.
The final outcome is a move with the unit into the Malaysian Jungle. The hardship of being an operative in the jungle against the powerful, well-disciplined, and incredibly cruel Japanese army leaves the reader with a tight stomach, bordering on an anxiety attack.
Then there is the nail-biting expedition led by Johnny and his fellow operatives, to rescue his sister and Julie, who have been kidnapped by a band of Chinese jungle outlaws, led by a diabolical member of the Soong family. They are holding the women as hostages. The rescue entails a graphic scene where Johnny’s sister is brought out from a hut into a jungle clearing; the Soong man and his band intend to gang rape and kill the two women. By this time the reader is no longer at the edge of their seat, they have fallen off their seat in a frenzy of fear-filled excitement and angst.
Now the story follows the path of D-Day and British victory in Europe, American annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the war of wars to its end.
Like any respectable love story, there is a happy ending and I’m going to leave it to you to discover.
This book is an exceptional read for those incurable romantics, like me. For those who love action-packed adventure from the safety of their armchairs. For those who like to dream of themselves in the idyllic realm of colonial kingdoms of bygone years.
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