Title : A Paradise of Illusions
Author : Laurie Hashim
Genre : South East Asian Literature ; Multi-cultural Fiction ; Period Fiction ; War ; Love
Pages : 306
I received this Review Copy from Penguin Random House SEA in exchange for an honest review.
“We all have a basic need to feel superior. Some people focus on intelligence, looks or financial success. The less creative types obsess over skin colour or social background.”
A story of love, courage, and compromise set in the multi-cultural backdrop of pre-war Penang
Anna, the pampered daughter of a maverick Englishman and his local Muslim wife, has been promised the unprecedented freedom to marry for love. Her young life, like the island she inhabits, is perched at the crossroads of eastern and western cultures in the waning days of the British Empire in Asia. The first man she falls for, the son of a prominent Chinese family in Penang, breaks her heart when he submits to an arranged marriage with a ‘backward’ but ambitious mainland Chinese bride. Anna’s next choice seems to be more suitable, a second-cousin on her mother’s side, an earnest self-made man whom her family adores. The newlyweds struggle to reconcile their individual aspirations with the expectations of their sprawling, extended families. The rumblings of the Second World War and the brutal Japanese Occupation transform their individual plights into a matter of life and death when they are thrust together in a desperate struggle to survive.
This epic story of love and loss is illuminated by the richly painted backdrop of a multicultural society in flux on a vibrant island that is both breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly suffocating.
“You might be right. But I don’t mind suspending belief for a good romance. After all, isn’t that what books are for? To allow the readers to experience a dramatic life without having to suffer the consequences?”
A Paradise of Illusion is the debut novel of Laurie Hashim. This story takes place in the backdrop of beautiful Penang Island. The plot line spans between 1919 to 1966 covering various characters who are interrelated to each other through blood, friendship, love, enmity and marriage. It is a brilliantly written book with amazing characters and a storyline.
The main character of A Paradise of Illusion is Anna, who is a daughter of an Englishman and a Muslim woman. Being the favourite daughter of her father, she is brought up in a more modern way with a lot of western influence in a world where the people were still stuck to their Eastern ways. Anna‘s character seems extremely similar to Jane Austen’s lead characters. One will easily fall in love with Anna for her intelligence, bravery, rational thinking ability, her love for literature and her outlook towards the world. Anna is a well-thought-out and magnificently written character.
Since childhood, Anna has been told that if she ever gets married it will be only for love and nothing else. When all her siblings fall for their mother’s arranged marriage system, Anna alone stands out. She falls in love for the first time with a good-hearted Chinese man only to get her heart broken brutally by him. After this incident, she loses hope in love and does the thing she thought she would never ever do in her life – get into an arranged marriage. But she does that on her own modern terms. She only gives her acceptance to get married to Rizal, her prospective groom, only after getting to know him and spending an ample amount of time with him.
Rizal, on the other hand, has a darkest secret which he can’t risk letting the world know. Though he is a nice man and the most eligible bachelor in Penang, this secret of his never allows Rizal to love Anna the way a husband should love her. He definitely cares about her and loves her but he is not in love with her. Which are very different things. Initially, Anna doesn’t pay much attention to it but at some point she finds her husband’s secret and both of them start drifting apart from each other.
Anna’s ex-boyfriend Tong becomes a successful doctor and gets married to a Chinese bride through an arranged marriage. Even after getting married, he is still very much in love Anna and earns for her. The rift between Anna and Rizal brings Anna and Tong closer once again. What will happen to their marriages? Will Rizal gives Anna the love she deserves? Or all their dreams will be shattered midway by the brooding Second World War? That is the story of this book.
“Their Asian brother would have been more impressed if the Japanese hadn’t unleashed unspeakable brutality on the population.”
To be extremely frank, the blurb doesn’t do justice to the book because this book has so much layers, issues and things to share than what the blurb exhibits. First of all, there were so many characters in this book. All of these characters have been written distinctly and you will not be confused between these characters. The writing style of the author was easy and simple.
The major success of this book was the plot line itself. It has interesting twists and emotions. This book will put you on spot and makes it extremely difficult for you as a reader to pick sides. All the decisions, reactions and choices the lead characters make are justifiable from their own perspective.
The political turmoil going around the world during the pre-world war II period was captured efficiently. The Japanese invasion and World War II has been incorporated into the pages of this book. The tension that prevails among the people of Penang and their preparation to safeguard their loved ones and families has been written down in a raw and honest manner.
In this book, the author has spoken about multicultural lifestyles and mixed marriages in greater depth. It is one of the best things about this book. Through this book, you as a reader will be able to experience a different culture more vividly. The author has also explored a lot about patriarchy and how women succumb to it. She has also spoken about women’s life and how they are forced to do things they obviously didn’t want to do.
The next best thing is bringing LGBTQ representation into this book aptly. Talking about this complex topic during pre-World War II was extremely fascinating.
This is an absolute masterpiece which will touch your heart in a unique way and at many points, it will break your heart as well.
“No explanation was offered to the silent crows, who had never before witnessed such barbaric proceedings. The British could be contemptuous of locals, but under their rule, the population had come to expect a civilised method of charges and litigation.”
I absolutely loved this book. Period.
Before starting this book, I had zero expectations, in fact, I was kind of least interested when I picked up the book. And the pace at which I read this book was super slow. Despite taking my own sweet time while reading it, the plot line and characters had so much power over me, that the moment I pick up the book again, I will be immediately transported to Penang Island in no time.
I love Anna’s character so much. She was an independent woman even at those times and her father’s way of bringing her up has a lot to do with it. I was able to see the resemblance in her characteristic with Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett. The way she perceives every story she reads and how she exhibits feministic traits every now and then was simply amazing.
While reading the book, midway there was a Eureka moment for me. I predicted something and that actually happened. No, it did not spoil my experience, it, in fact, enhanced my reading experience completely. I always say, a book happens to you for a reason and it will show up exactly when you need it the most in your life and this book is also one such book. It was highly relatable and I loved this book an extra for it.
I also liked Rizal and Tong, both of them were nice men. They have their own issues but they were good people nonetheless. I loved everything single thing about this book and in the end, how everything worked out was simply amazing and also heart-wrenching.
My rating for this book would 5 out of 5 stars
I would love to recommend this book to everyone who loves slow-burn, multi-layered, multicultural fiction. It was an emotional read. Give this book a chance and I’m sure you will not be disappointed.
Use the below link to get hold of this amazing book.
Once again, thank you Penguin Random House for the review copy 😀
Happy Reading Folks!