I’m not blogging as frequently as I used to, and I even forget to thank people for sharing my blog posts on social media. This is because I’ve been busy with so many things, but at some point I hope things will quieten down again.
In the meantime, I went to Bristol on Saturday for a flying visit, to see our Icelandic author Jónína Leósdóttir at Bristol CrimeFest. She was on a panel that might just win the prize for the most uncompromising title ‘Kicking Against the Pricks’ and her fellow panelists were just as fascinating as her: Emma Styles from Australia I already knew from Bloody Scotland and loved her book No Country for Girls. Antony Dunford’s Hunted addresses the subject of hunting and wildlife poaching in Africa, a subject I feel very strongly about. And the revelation to me was David Heska Wanbli Weiden from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, whose debut novel Winter Counts had sold out (so I couldn’t get it signed), but I ordered it as soon as I got home.
Ovidia Yu: The Mushroom Tree Mystery, Constable (Little Brown), 2022.
An author I did not manage to meet in Bristol but could not resist buying a few of her books was Ovidia Yu. As if she knew that I was reading the Far East this month, there is an entire crime series set in her native Singapore. She has a cosy crime foodie series featuring Aunty Lee, but it was the historical series with determined young woman and aspiring journalist Su Lin that captivated me. The series starts in 1936 in a Singapore that was a British Crown Colony and covers the very murky and shameful period when Britain was unable to defend Singapore, but I couldn’t resist reading The Mushroom Tree Mystery first, since it takes place in 1945 just as the war is ending, when Singapore was under Japanese occupation and in very real danger of being utterly destroyed in an attempt to gain more favourable terms for surrender.
You know how much I enjoy crime fiction set in different locations, especially ones I am not very familiar with, and how I love to learn more about the past or the present society while also being entertained. This series fits the bill perfectly and I look forward to reading more. Su Lin is an engaging heroine: very smart, ambitious, able to hold her own despite her youth. Dismissed by most people (and even her own family) as ‘the Chinese girl with a limp’, she is in fact well-educated and multilingual. In this book she is part of a Japanese household that is sheltering a prestigious blind Japanese scientist, who was supposed to build a bomb similar to the atomic one. When the professor’s assistant is found dead, Su Lin herself comes under suspicion as the only foreigner in the household, but there are far deeper secrets going on, not least major disagreements about whether to end the war or not.
Enigmatic characters, an international cast, a vivid backdrop and a good mystery (even if I rather guessed the outcome). Above all, I loved the observations and wry asides of the narrator, Su Lin:
One good thing about the Occupation: there were so many real threats that we stopped imagining what could go wrong. There just wasn’t enough energy to go on worrying about everything. Instead, unless there was actually a gun pointed at you, you got on with your life. And if there was a gun pointed at you? Then either you got shot and died – or you got on with your life.
The Japanese were less aggressive towards Eurasian and Indian locals then they were to Chinese and Malays. It was part of their trying to sow dissent between the different races in Singapore. The Japanese didn’t understand that most or all of use were descended from people who’d left their old ancestral lands to make new lives for themselves. Being a Singaporean wasn’t about having a certain skin colour or religion. It was about whether you were willing to survive, and for your family and the island to survive.
It’s human instinct to want to fit in. If you can’t fit in with the majority, you try to persuade others (but mostly yourself) that you are superior to them. If you try hard enough, you may actually become superior. But you will find you still don’t fit in. The British looked different enough to feel superior just from the colour of their sunburned skin. The Japanese looked more like us so had to work harder to put us down.
There was something of a precocious child and endearing about Su Lin (although she is in her early 20s in this book), which reminded me of Flavia de Luce. I liked her experimentations with growing mushrooms, and the way she mothers the two young houseboys, her curiosity, stubbornness and courage. She is cautious at times and at other times quite impetuous. I certainly look forward to reading more about this place, this period in history and this heroine.