As the novel moves through the lower levels of Malaysian society in the footsteps of two young men who are essentially afraid of everyone they encounter, we come to see the deeper, visceral impulses that underlie racism, casual animosity and violence in general. By the time we reach the climactic scene, in which Keong threatens and curses his Bangladeshi rival in Cantonese, a language the man cannot be expected to understand, and Ah Hock mutters the one thing he knows for sure – that “this is stupid” – Aw’s gripping and strangely moving book has brought us, if not to an understanding, then at least towards some appreciation of the social complexity and steady flow of injustices that have led to this absurd yet terrifying moment.
Details reveal themselves gradually: the narrator is a Chinese Malaysian man called Lee Hock Lye — known to his friends as Ah Hock — who is recounting the story to a local journalist of how he ended up in prison (for what part, in what crime exactly, we don’t know yet). His descriptions of the night of the killing are vivid: ‘I walked through the long grass — it was stringy and sharp and slashed my legs right up to my knees. It was hot, I was wearing shorts, my skin started to sting.’ Alongside this intense rendering of sensations, there is a powerful feeling of disassociation, and at times Ah Hock recalls Meursault, the title character of Camus’s L’Étranger... We, The Survivors is ultimately a powerful examination of immigration and society in south-east Asia that, crucially, never sacrifices its plot for its message.
The prose isn’t the issue here. Aw writes very well indeed (and does so regularly for the likes of the New York Times). Relationships are thoughtfully drawn, particularly Hock’s with his wife, an accounts manager whom he woos without realising. Aw skilfully tempts the reader through the book by describing the killing in a fragmented way: the desire to know what happened keeps you engaged. It’s a shame, though, that the writing around this core eruption of violence isn’t more compelling. The central experience Aw seems to want to capture in We, the Survivors is the greyness of life for those struggling to get by in modern-day Asia, a place that promises so much yet delivers for so few. It is unfortunate that the greyness of that experience soaks through the novel quite so pervasively.
Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so. We wonder what Su-Min seeks from Ah Hock’s story, but also why Ah Hock wants to tell it (he admits a punitive desire to give her more than she bargained for when she asks him to hold nothing back). [...] the novel isn’t simplistic, not least in its portrait of the complex contours of prejudice in Malaysian society. [...] [Aw's] achievement is to make a global story personal.