“The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds” by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

“The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds” is a fascinating story about a culture I knew very little about prior to reading this book, and I really appreciate it bringing Nyonya/Baba culture to my awareness. However, that is not the only reason to like it: it’s also a well-written and heartfelt account of one woman’s struggles to preserve her culture and her family as the world modernizes around her.

I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of sprawling family sagas, especially when set in a country or culture unfamiliar to me, and fans of those kinds of stories (e.g., the novels of Amy Tan) should definitely check this book out. The food, clothing, sights, smells, and sounds immerse you in turn-of-the-century Malaya, and the different dialects are presented gracefully and naturally, so that you can hear the characters’ voices as you read. It took me a while to finish this book, not because I was bored by it, but because I enjoyed savoring it a chapter or two at a time. At the same time, the characterizations are excellent, particularly of the main character, as we are given an inside look into the conflicting pressures affecting her: her frustration at the strictures placed upon her because she is a girl, her desire to preserve her own restrictive yet matriarchal culture, her struggles to raise ten children on her own and give them everything she can without losing them to the European culture that is taking over Malaya. Whether you are just looking to do a bit of armchair traveling across time and space, or you want to read a story with a heroine who breaks our current expectations for what “women’s fiction” should contain, I highly recommend this book.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book.

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