There have been plenty of books set in and about World War 2. But the vast majority of them have been from a Western perspective. Vanessa Chan’s stunning debut The Storm We Made takes readers to the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in the 1940s in an attempt to understand the lasting impact that those years had. On top of this, Chan layers complicity, guilt and desperation as she follows the plight of a family in the dying days of the war.
The Storm We Made opens in 1945. The Japanese have occupied Malaysia since 1941and have brutalised the local people in the name of the Empire. Cecily, her husband and three children – 18 year-old Jujube, 15 year-old Able and 8 year old Jasmin – are barely surviving. But they are surviving. Jujube is working in a local café and Jasmin spends her days in a bunker under the house as Cecily is afraid she will be taken from them. When the book opens teenage boys are disappearing off the streets. Very soon Able is one of those, taken to a prison camp to work on the Burma railway. As Cecily searches for Able the situation for the family deteriorates further. For Cecily, the stress is compounded by the knowledge of her role in helping the Japanese plan the invasion. The story is interspersed with flashbacks to 1937 when bored housewife Cecily is convinced by a suave undercover Japanese officer to help him steal military secrets. The life that Cecily in that time then will come full circle by the end of the novel.
Chan never pulls back from the horror, violence and depredation as she follows the lives of Cecily and her three children. The story of Able particularly is harrowing. In doing so, though Chan takes readers deep into the lives of this family under occupation. The constant fear , the compromises that they make, the small moments of compassion and the hope that something better will be coming. While the lives of the children are deliberately less nuanced, Cecily, with her freight of guilt, anchors the story and epitomises Chan’s ability to produce complex characters.
In an opening address to readers, Chan talks about the fact that she could never get her grandparents to talk about their experiences during the war. So she used other sources to build a picture of life in Bintang (aka Kuala Lumpur) in that time and imagined characters like her grandparents into that world. What she ends up with in this way is an illumination of a dark time in Malaysian and World history, a story that is not widely told, even by those who lived through it.