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Amid colonial rule and Japanese occupation, young lovers pay the price of modernity in Rachel Heng’s ‘The Great Reclamation’ Valenti -

A great book title is one whose meaning alters as a book unspools. Take Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” for instance: The first time the phrase “white noise” appears in the novel, it’s used as a sort of glib aside about the nature of death. But as the book progresses — and the consequences of the novel’s plague become more apparent — the phrase takes on a darker, more serious hue. The result is that the title deepens and ages not just as the novel progresses, but also with each rereading of the book.

Rachel Heng’s new novel, “The Great Reclamation,” is undoubtedly a book with a great title. On one level, it’s about the actual process of land reclamation, which makes sense, given Singapore’s history. (Heng is herself a native of Singapore.) The first known act of land reclamation occurred in 1819 when the British colonial officer Stamford Raffles began transforming the once sleepy fishing village of Singapore into a port that the British hoped would compete with the Dutch. These land reclamation projects continued throughout Singapore’s history; today it is estimated that over 20 percent of the country comes from reclaimed land.

On a deeper level, though, the novel is about what it means to reclaim something that once was, even if others insist it was never there in the first place.


The novel centers around a young boy, Ah Boon, who is born into a fishing village in the waning years of British colonial rule in Singapore. Much to his father’s dismay, Ah Boon is disinterested in fishing, preferring instead to spend time with his childhood crush, Siok Mei. One day, Ah Boon discovers a magical ability to detect movable islands that no one else can see. These islands have bountiful amounts of fish, which grant Ah Boon’s family a financial stability they’ve never had before. It also gives Ah Boon something he always craved but never found: affection and approval from his father.


Soon after Ah Boon discovers his gifts, Japan invades Singapore. Some celebrate, saying, “Asia for Asians.” But this is followed, as Heng writes, by “bayoneting Chinese babies, beheading Indian soldiers, filling Malay guts with water until they splattered and burst.” The British then take over again, and Siok Mei and Ah Boon find themselves on opposing sides. Siok Mei follows in her parents’ footsteps by becoming an activist. She is arrested by the British; when she is released, she waits for Ah Boon, hoping he will support her, but he doesn’t.

They are teenagers now, and Ah Boon, a popular kid at school, relishes in being known as the “diplomat” among his friends, never taking any sides — a powerful shift in how we understand his character. Heng introduces us to him as a sort of Harry Potter type with magical gifts, but the novel asks, what is the use of special powers if they are not used to help others?

Indeed, 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. In fact, Heng seems to suggest it is Siok Mei who possesses the true superpower because of her courage. Siok Mei falls in love with someone else, but she can’t help wondering what would have been had Ah Boon supported what she calls “the cause.” Heng writes, “There was a coldness to Ah Boon that Siok Mei had never seen before, and she was reminded of the frozen lollies they used to get from the drinks-cart man when they were children.”


Ah Boon then joins a group known as the Gah Men — Singaporean slang for the government — and he dons their uniform of white shirts and white pants and goes around enforcing their hardline rule. But there are reasons behind his choices, including his desire to give his mother the house that she always dreamed of living in but could never afford. He eventually falls in love with someone who also works for the Gah Men. When the government begins a process known as “the great reclamation,” it is Ah Boon who uses his powers to help them scout locations. He justifies this decision by telling himself that many poor families will now obtain comfortable housing, but he wrestles with the fact that these development projects will displace thousands and destroy the traditional kampong fishing village where he and Siok Mei fell in love as children.

It was not that long ago, in 2018, that Singapore appeared as a sort of flawless Wakanda-like place in the movie Crazy Rich Asians. In “The Great Reclamation,” Singapore is given the complexity it deserves, and Heng shows us the price of modernity. When “the great reclamation” project begins, for example, Siok Mei wonders how she can reclaim a past when the very land she once lived on has been taken away — and by someone she loves at that. Heng writes, “As a child, [Siok Mei] had struggled to understand the idea of homeland. Then she met Ah Boon … and slowly the kampong became a kind of home.”


The book ends in 1963 when Singapore gains its independence and celebrates the end of the 144-year British rule. The once sleepy fishing village of Singapore has been transformed into a metropolis with high rises. Ah Boon is proud, knowing that the progress Singapore has made is largely because of his magical gifts. But he can’t help thinking about the shores “where he had lain with Siok Mei, as if in a dream. That dream now given up.”


By Rachel Heng

Riverhead, 464 pages, $28

Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College.