I hugely enjoyed reading The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke a few months ago and had saved the sequel When the Future Comes Too Soon to read on holiday in April in Malaysia. As we drove through the province of Ipoh, where the novel is set, on the way to the island where we were staying, and then on our arrival were surrounded by lush tropical jungle and gorgeous Nyonga food, I felt truly immersed in the world that this fantastic novel brings to life.
The novel starts where The Women Who Breathed Two Worlds ends – with the Japanese dropping bombs on Malaysia in December 1941. It is centred this time around the daughter-in-law, Mei Foong, of the matriarch in the first book, and her fight to survive Japanese-occupied Malaysia. As the bombs fall Mei Foong makes her way through the streets of Ipoh looking for her husband and fearing the worst, to find him cowering in his shop. A huge Anglophile from his time studying in London, he clings to the belief that British will save them, but eventually, after they hear of the fall of Penang, the British jewel in the crown of Malaysia, Mei insists that the family escape to the countryside to a relative’s tin mine, where they assume they will be safer from the bombs and from the invading army. A treacherous journey ensues, with Mei shielding her children from the sights along the roadside as they drive into the jungle.
Here the family settle in to sleeping in a wooden house designed for the mine workers, as the grand house on the hill is seen as too much of a target for Japanese bombers. They are therefore spared when the grand hilltop house is hit one night in an air raid. Thanks to the wireless Mei brings with them from the town, they listen to news of the speed of the British retreat to Singapore and then the fall of Singapore itself. Mei becomes friendly with a man she had first met in Ipoh, Chew Hock San. Eventually after two months in the jungle, the family return to an occupied Ipoh and life resumes.
This book is excellent at evoking what is was like for Malaysians to live under occupation – the cruelty they endured, the contempt with which they were treated by the Japanese, their struggles as the currency was devalued, and their acts of defiance. Through it all Mei fights to keep her family safe and food on the table, and ironically sees her husband’s engineering business do better than it did under the British, as the Japanese take his skills more seriously. The novel also details the disintegration of the marriage between Mei and her husband, and her growing friendship with Chew Hock San.
Eventually it becomes clear that the Japanese are losing the war, the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan is announced, but it takes some weeks before the Japanese leave Ipoh and until the family can finally celebrate, when they hear that British marines have landed in Penang. The story has a bittersweet ending as Mei then makes a decision that will change her life and her children’s lives forever.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it is highly recommended for anyone interested in life in south-east Asia in the second world war.