A stunning historical fiction ... This is an epic novel, but not for its 464-page length, nor for the impressive amount of history it covers. It is an epic for the reasons life itself is epic. The Great Reclamation asks the reader to confront the big things, like love and identity and loss, but it allows us to revel in the little things, too ... It is a pleasure to simply live alongside these characters.
Undoubtedly a book with a great title ... One of the things that makes this novel so original and moving is how Heng pushes back on the 'chosen boy' narrative so often found in literature ... Singapore is given the complexity it deserves, and Heng shows us the price of modernity.
Heng’s novel is structured much like the experiences of the kampong dwellers: placidly paced at first, with change only seeping in around the edges, then everything collapsing all at once. The mode is mostly naturalistic, with one sliver of magic, those vanishing islands, as the only surreal flourish in a narrative otherwise factually compatible with Singapore’s National Education curriculum ... Heng dramatically raises the stakes ... Rachel Heng’s novel uses the dreams and aspirations of a kampong boy to track Singapore’s journey to 'a bright, orderly, prosperous future,' whilst clearly delineating everything that the country thoughtlessly cast aside in the name of progress, revealing how paltry this progress turned out to be—and asks if it was all worth it.
Her prose is alive; each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery ... Every bit of it is a delight to witness and revel in. The best novels teach us something new and ask us to engage in worlds beyond our own. For me, The Great Reclamation did just that.
The islands are an important plot point for the first hundred pages or so, then lose relevance for long stretches of time. Much more developed is Ah Boon’s evolving relationship to authority. As Ah Boon grows into adulthood, Heng paints a striking portrait of a man struggling to find his place in history. The novel is ultimately a well-rendered piece of historical fiction that questions who gets left behind in the march toward progress.
Heng wrings a great deal of emotion from Boon’s experiences and relationships ... and articulates the individual sacrifices and the inevitable divides that arise in nation building, skillfully capturing the inner psyche of a Singaporean everyman caught between two immovable worlds. This epic undertaking is not to be missed.