This is one of the few books that I will not regret picking it randomly; on the basis of its title, book cover which intrigued me, also knowing that a fellow Southeast Asian wrote this, then buying it at a Book Fair. In a typical book fair like this where there is barely any classification for various fictional books – ranging from mythical fantasies, vampire tales to classic literature and then to novels of family, relationships and love; finding the book that is to your preference and that one book you know it’d be a worthy buy (even though it’s less than $10 per book) is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Bitter-Sweet Harvest is definitely that needle.
This book is a sequel to the novel Sweet Offerings but it claims that “the stories can be read in any any order and are complete in themselves”. From the synopsis of Sweet Offerings, these two stories certainly evolve in the same family of two different generations.
Bitter-Sweet Harvest tells of a failed relationship between a Malay Muslim and a Chinese Christian. However, the title of the book gave me the impression that the love story between these two characters will work out in the end – since ‘harvest‘ implies reaping the fruits of labor and hard work. In the novel, the story places much emphasis on the past political events in Malaysia – the racial inequality in the country. The entire story transits in a few countries, namely; UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Italy and Indonesia.
An Mei (Chinese Christian) and Hussein (Malay Muslim) were deeply in love with one another. They were finished with their studies in Oxford and planning to return home. However, An Mei received news that her parents are coming over instead because of the turmoil in the country. Hussein claimed that he had to return to take over the politics his parents had expected of him when he left for studies in the UK. He asked An Mei to go with him, she didn’t want to. Both of their parents had no idea of their relationship. Eventually, hesitant An Mei left the country with Hussein when she was sending him to the airport on the day of departure. Upon arrival, An Mei was, of course, not welcomed by Hussein’s family. They even had a planned marriage set aside for him.
The sequence of events that happen afterwards makes you feel unjustified for An Mei. She stayed alone in the guest house while Hussein was living with his family and his bride in another house. One moment, she was hopeful, then the other, she became doubtful and depressive. She had her hopes high held on Hussein to do something about the whole situation, but Hussein just made alot of empty promises.
This novel was told in a third-person narrative, giving you all the sides of story. At several points of the story, I was duped by Hussein’s efforts to savage his relationship with An Mei. I understand that he didn’t want to ruin his family ties. Thus, he did try to alleviate the impact of being with An Mei. But in the end, he still submitted his parents’ expectations of him to end the relationship and was engulfed by his own desire to climb up the career leader.
Hussein’s parents claimed to want the best for him, yet they are the sole party to be blamed for the misery he suffered ever since he came back from UK. There was one point when An Mei told him that he lost track of the set of ideals he used to pursue back in school ever since he was involved in the politics. He told her that studying in Oxford and working in the politics are two different matters. Perhaps the circumstances didn’t allow to pursue him the sort of ideals he had; for instance, the change towards equality. He was abiding to what the community asked of him for popularity sake, rather than sticking to what he has always believed in and using that to change the country for the better.
The ending isn’t the kind I’d have expected of a love story. Who do you blame in this case? Their relationship was going strong all the while when they were in UK and now, when they’re back in Malaysia, it seems impossible to sustain it anymore. Was it the politics? Cultural differences? An Mei and Hussein weren’t the only couple illustrated in the novel to show that the likelihood of interracial marriages working out in the country is low during that time. There was one part where the young couple consulted a mutually close relative, who was also involved in an interracial marriage, for advice. She wasn’t on their side at all, despite being the one who brought them together in UK. She lashed out at them about the obligations she had to undertake as a result of the marriage.
Perhaps the ‘bitter-sweet harvest’ by the author refers to An Mei’s overcoming the hurdles towards the end of the novel. The ending is more focused on her happy life afterwards, while it was quite a dismay to learn about the ending for Hussein. However, it was a pity that this relationship didn’t work out because of the unnecessary interference by other parties.
It’s a fresh perspective from the other novels I’ve read! While reading this, I was faced with many unexpected situations which kept me plastered to the pages until the next chapter. It’s a great book and I’d want to read more novels by this same author!