1. Arising from or going to a root or source; basic: proposed a radical solution to the problem.
2. Departing markedly from the usual or customary; extreme: radical opinions on education.
3. Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions: radical political views.
4. Linguistics Of or being a root: a radical form.
5. Botany Arising from the root or its crown: radical leaves.
6. Slang Excellent; wonderful.
I haven’t read a lot about the Japanese occupation of Malaya so I was keen to read The Heart Radical and gain some insight into this era. It’s an interesting read – sometimes emotional and sometimes dry – with a few parallels to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s a big claim because they are two very different books in many ways, but the young daughter (Su-Lin) watching her lawyer father embark on a controversial case reminded me of Scout and Atticus Finch, and the underlying theme of fighting for what you believe in or standing up for what is right only strengthened the connection, at least in my eyes.
When Professor Paris Thumboo delivers a history lecture in London, human rights lawyer Su-Lin Tan barely recognises him. She last saw him more than 50 years earlier in a Malayan courtroom, when his mother, Anna, was on trial, charged with aiding communists. Now he’s reappeared in her life, while she is in the midst of the trial of a suspected terrorist, and wants her to read Anna’s story of the events leading to her trial. Su-Lin agrees and in the process recalls her own childlike understanding of a political conflict, euphemistically described by the then government as ‘The Emergency’, that changed her life. She recalls the court case, which was a matter of life or death for Anna and her lover, communist rebel leader Toh Kei, but served as inspiration for Su-Lin to become a defender of human rights.
A well-researched historical novel, The Heart Radical moves between past and present, with the flashbacks told by eight-year-old Su-Lin and Anna Thumboo, and the present told by an adult Su-Lin and Paris. It does take a bit of effort to keep up, as sometimes the viewpoints and time periods change unexpectedly. It also took a while to hook me in, as I found Su-Lin’s voice dry and harder to connect with; I just couldn’t warm to the adult Su-Lin. Anna’s voice, however, pulled me in and also pulled at my emotions and I found that I wanted to skip the present and just find out what happened to Anna, even though at times it was devastating to read. The present-day narrative also included an interesting dance between Su-Lin and Paris as they contemplate embarking on a romantic relationship. It seemed superfluous and added nothing to the story except distraction … I didn’t feel anything to believe they could really have a future despite their long ago connection.
As I read, I found myself dwelling on the use of the word “radical” in the title. In the novel, the word has a number of connotations. There’s the political aspect – the war or “Emergency” in Malaya, and in London, the trial of a suspected terrorist; there’s the intriguing aspect in which Su-Lin learns Chinese characters as a child (radicals are an essential element of the Chinese alphabet); and then there are the radical decisions some of the characters make, rooted in love, values, justice and politics. Trust me to go off on that tangent …
A book that encourages thought and contrasts different cultures and legal systems (without being a courtroom drama, The Heart Radical is worth a read if you like historical or literary fiction. I liked the way it made me think, and I liked some aspects of the narrative more than others (Anna’s story, for example), but overall didn’t feel convinced by the dual time periods – the stories just didn’t weave together as well as I would have liked, seeming distant from one another for more reasons than the 50-year gap in time.