BREAKING THE TONGUE

Vyvyane Loh, Author Norton $24.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-05792-8

Nothing symbolized the internal decay of the British Empire more than the fall of its crown jewel in the East, Singapore, "the impregnable fortress," to a relatively small force of Japanese in 1942. Loh's first novel uses the recent revelation that the British air force was betrayed to the Japanese by a British officer, Patrick Heenan, to spin a complex tale that exemplifies Sun Tzu's saying, "all warfare is based on deception." Most of Loh's story circles out from and loops back to a central sequence: the graphic torture of Claude Lim by Japanese interrogators. Claude's pain triggers a visionary experience, in which he is able to "see" the recent actions of the rest of the characters. Claude's father, Humphrey, a senior bank official, is such a confirmed Anglophile he doesn't even teach his boy Chinese; while his mother, Cynthia, takes assimilation to the extent of having affairs with white men. These include Jack Winchester, a recent arrival, who represents a new English consciousness: vaguely guilty about Britain's past history of racism, but acting with the unconscious superiority that arises from that history. Claude is volunteered—by his father—to serve as Jack's guide to Singapore; in this way, they become "friends." Meanwhile, Han Ling-li, a nurse, has been hired as a secret agent to supply the British with information about Japanese strategy. Ling-li, a nationalist, opposes the British, but prefers them to the Japanese. Unfortunately, her opposite number, British officer Patrick Heenan, is more successful spying for Japan. The convergence of Jack, Claude and Ling-li as the city implodes during the siege initiates Claude's reconciliation with his ethnic past. Loh's prose is sometimes clichéd—Claude's torturer sounds like a movie villain: "But we have ways, you know, of breaking down barriers and extracting information." Despite such lapses, this is a solid and moving accomplishment. (Mar.)

Forecast :Booksellers can recommend this debut to fans of Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire or Michael Ondaatje. Strong reviews could lead to brisk sales, primed by a seven-city author tour.

Reviewed on: 02/02/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
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Paperback - 416 pages - 978-0-393-32654-3
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