Author: Paul Callan
Publisher: Epigram Books
Page numbers: 256

How historically accurate should historical fiction be? The label ‘historical fiction’ is somewhat paradoxical: fiction is untrue, whereas history is a narrative connecting events and occurrences that are true. The genre has included a large range of literary works with varied treatment of accuracy, and how well a work of historical fiction is received will depend on how much history its readers expect to find.

This is the basis for both my praise and criticism of The Brigadier’s Daughter, Paul Callan’s third work of historical fiction set in Malaysia (or Malaya), following The Dulang Washer and Shadows Beneath the Fronds. I found it a beautifully written love story, but the historical aspects problematic.

The Brigadier’s Daughter tells the story of an ethnic Chinese Malaysian teenage boy who falls in love with a Eurasian girl and the lifelong consequences of their brief relationship. Its narrative unfolds across two timelines. In present day Singapore, a hawker named Lim Teng Jin meets a young woman who reminds him of the love of his teenage years, Stephanie. The events leading up to and that immediately follow his relationship with Stephanie serve as the narrative of the second timeline, set in Kluang, Johor, during the months leading up to Malaya’s Independence.

There are several things worth commending based on the premise alone. The Brigadier’s Daughter is noteworthy for subverting the trope of a white man in love and lust with an Asian woman (a trope that Callan himself employed it in The Dulang Washer) by reversing the ethnicities of the male and female lovers. More significantly, The Brigadier’s Daughter is a rare example of historical fiction set during Malaya’s Independence.

Malaysia’s and Singapore’s histories have served as the setting for many novels, though there seems to be a general predisposition among writers to write about the countries’ pre-Independence times – as recently as 2013, the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction was bestowed on to a Malaysian author who wrote about Malaya under Japanese Occupation (in this case, Tan Twan Eng for The Garden of Evening Mists). In recent years several Malaysian writers have remedied the imbalance by setting their stories in post-Independence historical events, but it is rare to find a novel that sets itself during Independence itself as The Brigadier’s Daughter does.

Yet this novel’s choice of historical setting, though praiseworthy, is problematic. In The Brigadier’s Daughter the ethnic Chinese residents of Kluang are universally excited about the prospect of Malaya’s Independence. Tunku Abdul Rahman is regarded as a hero, and at one point a character sings an Elvis Presley song parody lauding the Tunku’s triumph over the colonials. On Merdeka Day they gather in the Kluang stadium to observe and celebrate the occasion, parallel to the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur.

This depiction of an idyllic community embracing a historically significant event with a united sense of national identity contradicts what I know about Malayan responses to Independence. While I have no knowledge of how Merdeka was welcomed in Kluang in 1957, first-generation Malaysians who have produced literary works recollecting the 1950s make very little mention of observing the first Merdeka Day (in The Return by K.S. Maniam, Merdeka is noted by a mere announcement on the radio).  This is unsurprising as Malaya’s first Merdeka Day celebration happened during the Malayan Emergency, and while this issue is slightly addressed when Stephanie mentions that the Communists have retreated from southern Malaya, I still found the depiction of a joyous town-wide welcoming of Merdeka difficult to believe.

Other minor events in the novel make me wonder about its historical accuracy. Jin’s father wants his son to go to university to study economics, but in 1957 university education was beyond the reach of most Malayan citizens. He also regards Lee Kuan Yew highly in the belief that he will protect Chinese-medium education, but the late Singaporean première not only abolished multiple mediums of education in Singapore in favour of a single national system, he was initially in favour with merger with Malaysia. While this may be written off as mistaken hope on the part of the character, nothing else in the novel suggests that he was wrong. Perhaps the decision to set Jin’s and Stephanie’s love story during Malaya’s Merdeka years was an attempt to capture the youthfulness of a nation – to draw a parallel between their youthfulness and optimism with the country’s – but the rose-tinted world they live in is so different from the world of Malaya approaching Independence that I have learned about and understood.

If the novel’s believability somewhat suffers in the Kluang timeline, it makes up for it in the presentation of Jin’s trials and troubles as a hawker stall operator in Singapore. Callan continues what he has done very well in his preceding novels – tell stories about people from working class backgrounds –  and while Jin’s troubles never become as hopeless or painful as the mining community in The Dulang Washer or the estate children in Shadows Beneath the Fronds, it is a realistic portrayal of the challenges of running a hawker stall in Singapore. In The Brigadier’s Daughter a case of food poisoning draws the interest of people who appear to be representatives of the Singaporean government, and this event threatens to shutter Jin’s business and drive a wedge between him and his best friend and colleague, Seng, whom he suspects as being the source of food contamination.

The Brigadier’s Daughter is at its best when it is drawn entirely around Jin, his feelings, and his relationship with the people who matter to him. Mild-mannered, conscientious, and insecure, Jin is a very likeable and relatable character – a kind of Malaysian (or Singaporean) Everyman. It’s hard to not feel and root for him. It also makes his passionate teenage romance with the mysterious Eurasian girl he meets even more thrilling, and the consequences of their forbidden relationship even more heartrending.

When issues of the novel’s historical accuracy are put side, the novel is a moving story of love, friendship, and loss. Readers will be captured by Jin’s story of innocence and innocence lost and will be moved by his decades-long penitence and desire for forgiveness. As with many stories of young love, the pleasure derived from reading the story is emotional – in recognising our own experiences with love, particularly the awkward but sincere passions of our youth.  The ending will surprise some readers and emotionally resonate with many long after the final page is turned.

Perhaps The Brigadier’s Daughter is best approached this way. After all, a work of historical fiction is primarily a literary work and not a reference book. Its goal is to allow readers to immerse in a world beyond their own and to live the experiences of others vicariously. In this sense, The Brigadier’s Daughter succeeds: it is a haunting and moving love story, and the characters and their fates will remain with the reader despite the debatable veracity of their world.

Paul Callan’s The Brigadier’s Daughter is now available at all major bookstores nationwide. Read a local book recently? Drop us a comment or send us an email at editors@eksentrika.com to share your thoughts with us!