Ah Hok’s story winds through an unnerving sequence of disastrous and unwished-for reversals of fortune, including a stint in prison. His deadpan recital is honest and recounted without rancor. At the same time, it’s vividly evocative, and we invest wholeheartedly not just in the momentum of the tale, but in the ill-fated teller, as well. That’s to the credit of author Tash Aw, a Malaysian expat writing in English. In We, the Survivors, his fourth novel, he indicts the inbred order of his birthplace, giving us a compelling social-problem novel in the naturalistic tradition. But as his book takes aim at the rampant dislocations that class exploitation has wrought on Malaysian society, he also gives us a lead character whom we like and want to believe in, even as we perceive his self-delusion ... [a] richly rewarding novel.
[Aw's] His Asia is neither sentimental nor a stereotype ... Aw is a precise stylist; with a few, lean images, he evokes a country on the cusp of change ... But at times the novel feels like a morality tale in which the message is more finely honed than the characters themselves. The migrants, toiling in construction sites or starving in human-smuggling camps, are not given full shape. Even Ah Hock is a mystery ... Perhaps, though, that is the point ... The laborers who built modern Malaysia, Aw reminds us, are destined for obscurity, each layer of cement and heavy load they carry crushing who they really are.
That oral history, often punctured by Ah Hock and Su-Min's interactions, forms the bulk of We, the Survivors, a conceit that is the novel's only flaw ... Ah Hock is an excellent protagonist, among the best I've encountered in years. He's lovable and empathy-stirring, and his mix of remorse, acceptance, and hope is profoundly moving. Reading him is a pleasure, as is reading Aw's prose. Aw is a beautiful writer who — this is rare — excels at switching beauty off, or dimming it almost to nothing. When Ah Hock describes his childhood home or the tilapia farm he managed before the murder, Aw's language becomes lush and lovely, standing in stark contrast to the rough, brusque phrasing he uses when Ah Hock describes the abuse of refugee and migrant laborers that he saw often as a young man. This kind of modulation is unusual, and very powerful. It gives the novel a raw, immediate feeling, as if Ah Hock's past were pressing at the edges of his present ... But Aw too often releases that pressure by turning from Ah Hock to Su-Min ... A corollary issue in We, the Survivors is that Aw seems barely more interested in crime than Su-Min is. Though the novel theoretically builds to the explanation of Ah Hock's crime, its true energy comes from his reflections on his life ... Aw's explorations of structural injustice would have been perfectly clear — and perhaps even sharper — if relayed only through Ah Hock, and his narrative would be more powerful without the interruptions. Often as I read, I found myself wondering why Su-Min was there.
...a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia ... Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so ... A grim picture emerges of the Asian continent’s poor and less-poor, forced into a conflict shaped by western whims ... But Aw doesn’t rely on tub-thumping; his achievement is to make a global story personal. When he finally circles back to Ah Hock’s crime, the scene is managed briskly, in keeping with a tale that, however grim, is never solemn or overwrought. It even ends on a gentle note; still, the novel’s horrors can’t easily be pushed out of mind.
We, the Survivors considers how we tell our own stories, and how others tell our stories for us, when we are the subjects who are instrumentalized for other people’s ambitions and desires, but nonetheless attempt to speak our own truth ... Tash Aw’s brutal simplicity of portraiture lays bare the landscape of human labor and exploitation under capitalism ... Tash Aw persuades the reader to understand Hock Lye’s crime of passion. Through Aw’s deft hand we see the buildings that populate Hock Lye’s landscapes: housing areas that were once shiny and new, waiting to be outgrown and replaced in one’s personal ambitions by another housing estate ... this is the discomfiting mirror Tash Aw holds up to the nation, complete with the glare of the stark equatorial sun.
...a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces ... The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation ... As in his previous novels, Tash Aw is able to take a complicated subject and animate it in an engrossing and visceral work of fiction. Intriguing and worldly, We, The Survivors is a story about what transpires when the everyday poor are threatened by the poorest of the poor.
The novel has a strong sense of place, but more important is its powerful sense of culture. Tash Aw reveals both with tight prose ... We’re shown the way people live and how they survive—those that do. Tash Aw pulls no punches.
From the very first page of Tash Aw’s new novel, the ghost of Albert Camus’s The Outsider is an almost palpable presence. The detached tone of Aw’s first-person narrator, Ah Hock; the fleeting impressions of societal contradiction and injustice that govern his life; the catalytic presence of a supposed friend and petty criminal, Keong; and, most of all, the fact that Ah Hock seems recently to have committed a random murder make him a close cousin to Camus’s feckless, emotionally stunted Meursault ... This, however, is where the similarities end. For while Meursault’s homicidal impulse is a thing of the moment, the symptom of an undefined anomie, We, the Survivors provides an entire if barely visible history for Ah Hock. It is a narrative of exile, marginalisation and corporate greed, of abuses of the land and those who scrape a living from it, all of which have helped to form contemporary Malaysia ... As the novel moves through the lower levels of Malaysian society in the footsteps of two young men who are essentially afraid of everyone they encounter, we come to see the deeper, visceral impulses that underlie racism, casual animosity and violence in general. By the time we reach the climactic scene...Aw’s gripping and strangely moving book has brought us, if not to an understanding, then at least towards some appreciation of the social complexity and steady flow of injustices that have led to this absurd yet terrifying moment.
Told in a conversational tone, We, the Survivors is peppered with pop culture references to Hong Kong stars like Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, and presents a matter-of-fact acceptance of life’s harsh circumstances ... Tash Aw’s skills as a writer lull us into a sense of comfortable familiarity with Ah Hock, which registers as disturbing when one remembers he is a convicted murderer. There are no easy answers at the end of We, the Survivors—and there shouldn’t be: this is a stark rendering of Southeast Asia in the 21st century, a region barreling toward an uncertain future at the speed of modernity. It’s an outlook shaped by the ravages of climate change, by a society that treats its migrant population something subhuman, and by rampant corruption. Yet thanks to Ah Hock’s striking voice, the novel is never less than a pleasurable read.
You want me to talk about life, but all I’ve talked about is failure, as if they’re the same thing, or at least so closely entwined that I can’t separate the two—like the trees you see growing in the half-ruined buildings in the Old Town.' This devastating opening line frames the life of Ah Hock, whose outsider status as a Malaysian of Chinese descent is only bearable because there are folks who occupy the darker fringes even Hock has the luxury of escaping ... Aw...savagely erases any doubt that only the fittest survive in the ruthless world of global capitalism.
As he crafts Ah Hock’s narrative, Aw masterfully conveys his protagonist's specificity while also weaving together a larger picture of the class divisions, racial biases, unjust working conditions, and gender roles that pulse under the surface ... A raw depiction of one man’s troubled life and the web of social forces that worked to shape it.
...[a] captivating novel ... As Hock and his interviewer seek to understand what brought him to kill, readers are drawn into a Malaysia overwhelmed with thousands of immigrants seeking refuge, employment, and survival. Aw’s potent work entraps readers in the slow, fateful descent of its main character, witnessing his life spiral to its inevitable conclusion.