Tanamera by Noel Barber
I read this many years ago and was totally drawn in to the story and the setting of the book. My father was born in Singapore before the war and had an amah. He was dressed in 'dresses' as a baby and very much of the colonial era. This book takes the reader from this time through the changes in Singapore and for the family in an almost 'Mitchener style' of family saga.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In his biography "The Natives wee friendly...so we stayed the night" Barber starts his foreward in this way;
" At the age of four I was taken prisoner by the Germans . At the age of seventy I became a novelist. A great deal happened in between."
He was editor of the Daily Mail in post war Paris, foreign correspondent covering the Hungarian Uprising then reporting from Casablanca, Tibet, Singapore and the South Sea Islands. He was the first Briton to reach the South Pole after Scott, he was stabbed five times while covering wars in Morocco and shot in the head while covering the Hungarian Uprising. It took a serious car accident to end his career as a correspondent and enabled him to write full time.
As the Daily Express put it; his life was not a dull one and he makes " James Bond, by comparison (look) like a slippered bore, who missed his full share of fun, adventure and girls."
He has used his travel experiences and indeed life experiences to write some very good stories and what makes these really come to life is the way he really knows the place the novel is set.
Tanamera is set in Singapore from the 1930s through the Japanese invasion in WWII through to Singapore's independence. It is a family saga that involves two important Singaporean families. One is a rich and powerful Chinese family and the other a colonial British family with a large financial empire.
This becomes a sort of history of the Chinese in Singapore and the traditions and family responsibilities of Chinese families generally. It is really interesting to read Barber's descriptions of important events in the Chinese year and it is obvious that he knows Singapore and about Chinese traditions from the vivid descriptions in the books.
At the same time we are very involved in the lives of the Dexter family who have made their fortune and their home in British Singapore and feel that this is where they belong. I was really drawn into this family as this is exactly the time that my grandparents lived in Singapore before WWII and the photos I have of them at this time were just as Barber described things in the book.
The actual story brings these two very different families together as one member from each family falls for someone in the other. Now it would be fine to do business with a Chinese /British family and to meet socially but a marriage of a Chinese girl to a colonial British man was just not going to happen.
John Dexter falls madly in love with Julie Soong, at first they keep it secret knowing that it is unlikely to be approved but as you might imagine their relationship causes repercussions that no one would have imagined.
Mrs Dexter is stunning and admired by all for her charm and elegance and her husband is not only successful but handsome as charming as well. Needless to say John, the son is also charming, handsome and the man all girls want for their husband.
The Soong family are similarly gorgeous in a suitable Chinese way and of course Julie is gorgeous, slim and intelligent to boot.
Barber has a very easy writing style. I can get into his books within the first few pages as he paints the scene so beautifully, his descriptions of places are so recognisable if you have been there and if not then he takes you there with him.
His characters are a little too perfect to be true and having read all his novels I have found that he does tend to have a bit of a formula. There are always two families, always successful and wealthy and of course two people fall for each other and there is always some major reason why they cannot get together.
WORTH A READ?
This is my favourite of Barber's novels, probably because of my family connection with the history and geographical setting of the book. I love reading books where I can recognise the paces and picture the characters having a drink in Raffles or walking around a garden full of lovely orchids and so on.
All his books are equally good on the geographical and historical accuracy as he has lived in all of the places in the novels. I don't think it matters which of his novels you read first but if you have a connection with any of the countries he has written about then I would suggest you start with that novel. If you enjoy that then wait a little while before selecting the second otherwise you will very quickly see the formulaic story line which is a shame as the writing and settings are spot on. Barber has done his research and the historical accuracy as well as the geographical accuracy is evident. I also love the family saga style of story telling that takes you through the years of a family while you experience the history that has shaped the place where the story is set.
This is a love story that pulls you in from the first few pages. It is not your average chicklit as the writing goes beyond the romance and sets it firmly in its time and place in history. Barber does have a very easy writing style, he tells a good yarn and this is the sort of book that once you start you cannot put down. The first time I read this was on a plane coming back from Australia and I had finished it by the end of the journey as I was just so caught up in it. I was absolutely exhausted but I just wanted to know how things panned out for Julie and John and their families.
The families lived through a very turbulent time in history and they are not untouched by events such as the Japanese invasion of the island so the novel is not just a romantic love story it is also very tense, exciting and worrying at times too.
If you haven't read any of his books then I would certainly say give them a try. They are not as long and geologically involved as James Mitchener but they do follow a family through generations and tell the history of the place as well as the story of the families. I think I would also say they are an easier read than the Mitcheners which can get a bit dry at times.
WHAT OTHER WISER PEOPLE THAN ME HAVE SAID
"From the first sentence TANAMERA is a wonderful tale. It has excitement, true detail and the very smell of the East. Noel Barber knows his territory and his people. It's a big story and a great read." - Leslie Thomas
"Noel Barber has always done everything in a big way, with style, panache and a dash of adventure. But he has never written a story of such dimensions, such a sense of history and imagination as this first novel....it is an intensely gripping and convincing story." - Manchester Evening News
"Convincing, exotic, lively, for sheer story-telling it puts other so-called 'epics' in the shade." - Standard
SO IN SHORT
Thanks for reading. If you want to give Barber's novels a try then if Tanamera does not appeal then try 'Woman of Cairo' ( Egypt) or 'A Farewell to France' ( France) or 'The daughter's of the Prince' ( Italy) are some of his other novels if those setting are more appealing. Most are on Amazon for 1p plus postage so you won't be breaking the bank.
In case you were wondering about my title. Noel Barber wrote a non fiction book about the fall of Singapore called 'Sinister Twilight'.
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