I was first introduced to Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s historical fiction novels when The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds became available as one of Amazon’s Kindle First deals ahead of its release in late 2016. If you’re not familiar with the Kindle First program, it offers 4 to 5 titles each month among which Amazon Prime members can download one for free a month ahead of its actual release.
I was drawn to The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds that month as my Kindle First selection because it was a historical fiction novel set in a time and place I hadn’t read much about before. It also promised to be a family saga rather than having the romance-novel undertones of some historical fiction novels. In this I was definitely not disappointed.
When I was contacted about reviewing Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s second novel in the series – When The Future Comes Too Soon – I knew I wanted to jump at the chance and finally pick up both books back-to-back. I didn’t really know what to expect but ended up being pleasantly surprised by how robust and well-developed the novels felt for a new author. Find out more in my reviews below!
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds
Publication Date: November 1st 2016
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
(Available on Kindle Unlimited)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Facing challenges in an increasingly colonial world, Chye Hoon, a rebellious young girl, must learn to embrace her mixed Malayan-Chinese identity as a Nyonya—and her destiny as a cook, rather than following her first dream of attending school like her brother.
Amidst the smells of chillies and garlic frying, Chye Hoon begins to appreciate the richness of her traditions, eventually marrying Wong Peng Choon, a Chinese man. Together, they have ten children. But the cultural shift towards the West has begun. Chye Hoon finds herself afraid of losing the heritage she so prizes as her children move more and more into the modernising Western world.
What I Liked
Learning about Malaysian culture in the late 1800s-early 1900s. In her first novel, Selina Siak China Yoke introduces the reader to the cultural, historical and social setting in which her Malayan Series novels will be placed. The protagonist of her first novel is Chye Hoon, a nyonya or female descendant of Chinese immigrants who moved to Malaysia (baba is the male equivalent). Through Chye Hoon we learn of the practices of this subsect of the Malaysian population during British rule – from the delicious kueh (cakes) which Chye Hoon is an expert at cooking, to their religious rituals, practice of arranged marriages and reliance on at-home births even after the initial advent of modern hospitals. The author is extremely adept at interweaving social anecdotes and little facts about the life of the times around the central plot of the novel, whether her female characters spend time gossiping while chewing betel nuts, or a mother shares ancestral legends with her children. The history and culture is entwined seamlessly into the story line, so that you’ll learn a lot while still being fully immersed in the plot.
The strong female characters. This seems to be a very welcome regular part of Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s novels. Her female characters – like her first novel’s protagonist Chye Hoon – are larger than life in their capacities to lead their families and work ceaselessly to make a new life for their children. In The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, we see Chye Hoon change from a strong-headed child, into a still determined but self-sacrificial woman, and ultimately into the elderly matriarch of her large family. Though the plot of this first novel is quieter than that of the second, Chye Hoon’s life still takes many unexpected turns. She has to learn to become an entrepreneur using her training in cooking as her only tool, teaching herself how to deal with the daily revenues and costs of a company and becoming a respected business-owner within her community. She guides her many children in their life-decisions, including schooling, marriages and career-choices, providing some of her sons with opportunities far beyond the ones that were available to her brothers in the decades before. She’s a truly inspirational female character, who makes no excuses for her strength and grit.
The relationships and tensions between the characters. In portraying the social struggle experienced by her characters, Selina Siak Chin Yoke uncovers both the closeness and the strained ties between them. Love, for example, takes on many different faces within the novel – from the love of a mother for her children, to that of successful or unsuccessful arranged marriages, to the at-the-time prohibited love between people of different races, to Chye Hoon’s love for the Nyonya traditions. Much of the story line of the book is centered between the changing cultural and social norms of the time, with matriarch Chye Hoon still extremely tied to her past heritage, and her various children moving further and further away from the customs in which they were raised. I recognized that despite being set in the 1800 and 1900s, the book depicted a very universal struggle between generations coping with the unstoppable historical and technological changes sweeping the world. The book felt relatable for someone like me who has moved out of my country of origin and who is experiencing a very different world from the one in which my parents were brought up.
What I Didn’t Like
Slight repetitiveness and stilted dialogue for less-educated characters. I would like to preface this by saying I thought the novel was extremely well-done, but I think the writing did occasionally feel like a debut novel. After the first several descriptions of the different types of kueh cakes that Chye Hoon prepared for her business, I was ready to move on, but the author still took several more chances to delve back into the different types of kueh that one can make and their various colors. Similar slight repetitiveness occurred for different themes as well, like chewing of betel nuts. Overall, I found the prose refreshingly simple, but also at times missing a slight brightness which more complexity may have helped with. The author also made the choice of having her less-educated characters speak in a stilted English which at first felt off-putting. I eventually did get used to it and the author explains at the beginning of her second novel that this choice was made to “give a flavour of the local dialect” by reordering the words in some of the characters’ dialogue and to “heighten the sense of place”. This explanation would have been great to have at the beginning of the first novel as well.
Impressive debut novel that will transport you to Malaysia during British dominion. You’ll see this new setting from the eyes of the strong female protagonist Chye Hoon as she manages through personal and historical changes to keep her large family together.
When The Future Comes Too Soon
Publication Date: July 18th 2017
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Following the death of their matriarch, the lives of Chye Hoon’s family turned upside down. Now that the British have fled and the Japanese have conquered, their once-benign world changes overnight.
Amid the turmoil, Chye Hoon’s daughter-in-law, Mei Foong, must fend for her family as her husband, Weng Yu, becomes increasingly embittered. Challenged in ways she never could have imagined and forced into hiding, Mei Foong finds a deep reservoir of resilience she did not know she had and soon draws the attentions of another man.
Is Mei Foong’s resolve enough to save herself, her marriage, and her family? Only when peace returns to Malaya will she learn the full price she must pay for survival.
(see trigger-warning for the plot at the end of this post)
What I Liked
A more exciting plot line. Though I really enjoyed the first book in Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s Malaysian series, there was a quietness and intimacy to the plot that made it somewhat less exciting than this second novel. When The Future Comes To Soon starts at the beginning of World War II, when the Japanese invade Malaysia and drive the British out. With a new female protagonist at the center of the plot – Mei Foong, one of Chye Hoon’s daughters in law – we see our characters grapple with much more fundamental changes in their lives than those experienced within the first novel. From bombings, to extreme food shortages, violence perpetrated from the new Japanese conquerors on their Malaysian subjects (especially the ones of Chinese descent), racism and loss of life, this second novel is dramatic right from the beginning. I also felt the author’s writing gained in complexity in this second novel, with more beautiful and evocative descriptions than in the first, and much less repetition.
A female protagonist with more complexity. While Chye Hoon was an indomitable figure with whose will her children constantly clashed, our second heroine Mei Foong has a quieter type of strength. Unlike Chye Hoon, she is not always able to speak up for herself and it was sometimes frustrating to see her put up with terrible treatment from her husband or others in the novel. However, I liked the ways in which Mei Foong is portrayed as more flawed than Chye Hoon. To some degree, Chye Hoon felt more one-dimensional in the way she was characterized by the author as this unremitting juggernaut of a woman, in front of whom all difficulties eventually yielded. Mei Foong may be weaker and less decisive at times, but she somehow feels even more relatable and realistic. It was also interesting to me that the author decided to pick a character that was not technically a Nyonya for her second protagonist, which allows the narrative to depart a bit from a discussion of Nyonya traditions that was already covered in the first novel.
The surprising ending. Towards the end of the book I thought it was going to close with a relatively expected ending. I believed I was one chapter away from finishing, when in reality there was an additional chapter left. Thinking that a significant story line in the novel would be left unresolved in favor of a simpler conclusion, I was ready to be somewhat disappointed. Instead, the final chapter turns everything on its head, almost in the vein of the plot twists in thrillers I’ve read recently (okay, maybe a little less so). Without plot spoilers, Mei Foong ends up in a completely different situation than you might have thought. I particularly liked that the author jumped to present time in an Epilogue to the novel, showing Mei Foong as a grandmother coping with the dramatic changes she experienced in her life at the end of the novel. We see her reflect on what she would have done differently and on her regrets – if any – and think about her various children and their destinies. It made me wonder whether there would be a third book in the series. Apparently, the author is working on another novel, but I’m not sure if it’s connected to this saga or on an entirely new story line. Either way, I’ll be reading it!
What I Didn’t Like
Slightly caricatured villain. The central villain in this novel is Mei Foong’s husband and the eldest son of Chye Hoon – Weng Yu. By the end of the novel, he has grown to the status of a super villain, and unfortunately his character comes off as having very little nuance to it. Whether he is indulging in his addiction for gambling, selfishly showing very little interest in his wife or children, reminiscing about his prior love interests or being extremely cowardly (and this is mentioned many times), there is basically nothing redeeming to his character. I think eventually Weng Yu becomes a foil for all the struggles that Mei Foong is up against. He loses his humanity as an actual character and turns into a shell of a person who always responds in predictable (and negative) ways to the events of the novel. I wouldn’t say this doesn’t work, but I think more moments in which Weng Yu’s nuances of morality emerge would have made the relationship between the two central characters more complex and interesting for the reader.
The second novel in this saga is beautifully written and jam-packed with action and history, as Mei Foong and her family struggle to survive against the backdrop of World War II and Japanese invasion of Malaysia.
About The Author (see her website)
Of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, Selina Siak Chin Yoke (石清玉) grew up listening to family stories and ancient legends. She always knew that one day, she would write. After an eclectic life as a physicist, banker and trader in London, the heavens intervened. In 2009 Chin Yoke was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering, she decided not to delay her dream of writing any longer.
Her first novel, The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds (The Malayan Series, #1), was published on November 1, 2016 and made an immediate emotional connection with readers. It debuted as an Amazon best-seller in historical fiction, was named by Goodreads as one of the 6 best books in the month of its release, and has been favourably compared to the work of Pearl S. Buck and Amy Tan. Her second novel, When the Future Comes Too Soon (The Malayan Series, #2) was released on July 18, 2017.
(Biography details from Amazon)
Have you read either of the novels in Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s Malayan Series? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
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Thank you to the author and her publicist for providing a galley of When The Future Comes To Soon in exchange for an honest review.
TRIGGER WARNING for the plot of When The Future Comes To Soon – The plot contains a pretty vivid miscarriage scene in the second half.