“The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds” followed the life of Chye Hoon, a strong-willed Nyonya girl who becomes the matriarch of her mixed-heritage family in early 20th-century Malaysia. “When the Future Comes Too Soon” picks up shortly after where “The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds” left off, with the death of Chye Hoon. Now the family’s story is narrated by Mei Foong, Chye Hoon’s refined, upper-class Chinese daughter-in-law, who married Chye’s oldest son, Weng Yu, the one who held such promise but has turned out to be something more like a failure, or at least, utterly unsuited for the life he has been forced to live. Now it is up to Mei Foong to preserve the family during the WWII Japanese occupation.
Although “When the Future Comes Too Soon” is an immediate sequel to “The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds,” it is not a copy of it. Mei Foong has a very different narrative voice than Chye Hoon, and their circumstances are utterly different as well. While Chye Hoon was a rebellious girl who learned to appreciate her native culture, which was rich, unique, and slowly disappearing, and who become a successful entrepreneur and an imposing matriarch following the death of her husband, Mei Foong was a delicately beautiful highborn Chinese maiden who was brought into the family as much as a status symbol as anything else. Chye Hoon’s story was one of a woman trying to present the beauties of her culture to others, and was comparatively slow-moving, full of the scents and sights of turn-of-the-century Malaysia, as Chye described her Nyonya cooking and her attempts to peddle kueh cakes. Mei Foong’s story is sparer and faster-paced, jumping in immediately into the action of the first Japanese bombardment of the island, and following the family’s scramble to find each other, flee to the countryside, return back to the city, and figure out how to live under material privation and Japanese occupation. While both books are at their heart tales of survival, physical and cultural, the survival is of a different nature in each.
Mei Foong’s struggles to keep her family alive and together are riveting, as she deals with impoverishment and physical danger while taking care of an unreliable husband, an aging father, and multiple small children. Her struggles to understand her culture and her stance towards it, though, are perhaps more important in a deeper sense. As a Malaysian-born Chinese woman, educated in both Chinese and British culture, she, like her husband, is torn between her heritage and her education. She speaks English and admires many of the advances the British brought Malaysia, including things like modern medicine and the education of women to work outside the home. At the same time, she, like many, is horrified when the British abandon Malaysia and its people at the first sign of Japanese attack. And although the Japanese can be harsh masters, they also work to foster pan-Asian feelings and make a point of putting Asians in positions of authority, something the British would never have even considered. The Malaysian characters finding themselves occupied and subjugated once again, and have to ask themselves: is one master really any better than the other? Do the benefits of British civilization outweigh its racism?
These are heavy questions, but they don’t weigh down the story: the main focus is always Mei Foong’s feelings, her family, her marriage, and her growing attraction to another man. The ending, like that of the first book, is bittersweet: bitter because Mei Foong regrets the chances she let slip, and sweet because of the chances she did take. “When the Future Comes Too Soon” is a rich and compelling story, filled with realistic and sympathetic characters, about a complex and multifaceted culture that comes to life on the page.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.