There are magical islands in Rachel Heng’s Singapore, replete with fish; there are competing political factions and questions of power and control; there are familial relationships and love interests in a world that is being dissolved and rebuilt. This is the realm of Heng’s second novel, The Great Reclamation, upon which she casts a remarkable story.
In 1940s Singapore, British rule is drying up—but so, too, are the fish in the novel’s small village. A curious boy named Ah Boon discovers that he has the unique power to see lively, wondrous islands that are invisible to other people. When he shares his discovery with his family and community, their fortunes change, and the fishing village is able to thrive. Ah Boon, though, is focused on Siok Mei, the spunky neighbor girl, and their lives remain entangled while growing up, pursuing education and confronting their changing political realities and global climate.
Layered beneath all of Ah Boon’s adventures and experiences are the rich landscape and the ways humans measure their lives in, around and because of it. From the magical islands’ plethora of fish to the proposal of land reclamation, the landscape acts and responds, speaks and listens, and Heng highlights these interactions in beautiful and surprising ways. Her prose is alive; each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.
Heng captures the individual and collective challenges of being human, evaluates pretense and power shifts, explores what a modern country might become after the disruption and displacement of World War II, and explores our concepts of family and home—and 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. I don’t remember the last time I finished a nearly 500-page novel in one day, but I could not stop reading. It’s a remarkable journey.