The Moonlight Palace, by Liz Rosenberg
“Let’s agree right here at the outset that memory is made up of one part perception, one part intuition, and one part true invention.” So begins Agnes Hussein, the unreliable narrator of The Moonlight Palace. The last descendant of the last sultan of Singapore, she is a curious teenage girl in early 20th century Singapore. Her family, once rich and important, still lives in the palace that once ruled Singapore but is now a crumbling ruin. Getting by on rent from boarders and her grandfather’s military pension, the family is all but watching the clock run out. Agnes, the youngest member, has to find her way in a new world, one which is delightfully brought to life in the book. Singapore in the 1920s was a crossroads of worlds (European colonialists, Asian natives, Muslim immigrants) and times (the past and modernity), and the changes are integrated into the plot seamlessly. (My last fictional view into Singapore was a little more blatant about describing the setting.) Agnes’s family finds herself at the center of the crossroads, as the power struggles to shape the future of Singapore play themselves out over the ownership of her family home. The larger ideas of what a country is (“For true progress to be made, a generation must be sacrificed.”) are reflected in the battle over the sultan’s palace.
In this time of change, Agnes is looking at the world as an adult for the first time. She gets her first job (from a Jew!) and develops her first crush (on an Englishman!), while her family’s boarders (a Chinese student and a devout Muslim) make news, too. Agnes has to grow up in the process of dealing with her family’s last throes of relevance in a rapidly changing world, and it’s that world that makes you care about the story. I can’t say enough about how interwoven the setting is with the story; after reading a chapter just to see what happens you realize you got to see a whole new world without having it take you out of the story. It’s probably the most difficult accomplishment of historical fiction, and it’s done here to near perfection.
The prose is efficient and not spectacular, though it contains a few gems:
“We were still in the honeymoon phase, when you don’t tell the other person everything you are thinking.”
“People fight ferociously to keep their dreams intact. … Nations…flags…religions…”
The real accomplishment here was creating a universe and reflecting it in a microcosm of a story. Recommended.