The House of Trembling Leaves by Julian Lees

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The House of Trembling Leaves by Julian Lees

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A tragi-comic-thrilling-historical novel that takes us from Asia to Cambridge and back again while remaining sweet and rather charming. Even if you forget the plot, you will never forget Sum Sum.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Sandstone Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1908737175

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To many it may just be another skirmish in the longstanding clan war in the Malaysia of 1936 but the explosion destroys Lu See's village dam and over 30 lives. As far as Lu See's concerned, it's time for her to leave anyway. Rather than face an abhorrent arranged marriage she escapes to Cambridge, England with her Tibetan servant, Sum Sum, seeking a future that combines study with her forbidden true love, Adrian Woo. Adrian comes from a rival family in the village so this isn't a match that pleases everyone. For now Lu See and Sum Sum think they've left trouble and conflict behind but their futures testify differently.

No one can accuse author Julian Lees of being a stick in the mud for story locations. His last book, The Fan Tan Players (2010) was set in Macau and now he's gone for a quadruple siting, taking us to Malaysia, Cambridge, Tibet and India in the comfort of our own homes and some superlative writing.

Lu See and Sum Sum are followed by a narrative that picks up their lives at crucial moments. They flee from localised civil war to arrive in England at the moment when it's preparing for a fight of its own against fascism. From there we experience World War II Malaysia under the Japanese, pre-independence Malaysia and Tibet pre- and post-Chinese invasion. This isn't so much one rich tapestry as a living museum, each era dripping with atmosphere, a sense of its own time and that of the location. In fact in many ways the locations are as much characters as the humans but that doesn't mean that the humans sparkle any less.

Lu See changes from young and love-struck to life-struck. Sum Sum on the other hand, while devoted to Lu See gets a lot more fun out of life. This may be the only time you'll laugh at a Tibetan nunnery’s bath time. (Yes, the tapestry is that rich.) Lu See and Sum Sum battle the establishment in many ways but their fight starts with Lu See's mother who can't understand why her daughter would reject her values and want more than the groom her family has prepared her for.

The twists and turns are varied; some surprising and some predictable but comfortably so. In the case of Sum Sum I thought something pretty major had been forgotten completely at one stage until Julian Lees doubled back to cover it. (I don't want to give it away but, trust me, it's a revelation worth the wait!)

I won't list all the characters (there are some absolute corkers), but I must just give an honourable mention to one of the most amazing fictional Italians I've ever read about. You'll know him when you see him and, if you want to sign my 'give him a novel of his own' petition, you know where to find me.

If I have a tiny grumble, I felt that the mole-faced villager was stretching credibility a little regarding the number of miles that he runs up and how his storyline finishes. However, it doesn't affect our enjoyment of a charming, unusual story that takes us through laughter, tears and, sometimes over the edges of our seats as we witness the sort of enduring friendship that we all wish we could have.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to read more about Malaysia, we heartily recommend the 2012 Man Booker Prize short-lister The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

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