Anderson, B. (2013). Amber Road. Random House Australia
[Genre: Literary Fiction, WWII, Coming-of-age]
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House Australia for an advanced reader copy of this title.
In 1941 Singapore, 17 year old Chinese-Singaporean Victoria Khoo lives a life of leisure and luxury. Her biggest concern is her dream to become the wife of childhood friend Sebastian and mistress of his family's colonial mansion on Amber Road. Even when Sebastian returns from Cambridge to announce his engagement to the English Elizabeth Nightingale, Victoria's dreams aren't derailed. But war is coming and the course of the next 5 years will change all of their lives.
I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Amber Road. I think Victoria is one of the most irritating literary characters I have ever come across and it took strength as the reader not to hate her. She starts the novel as a spoilt young miss, for whom everything is 'so, so' something. She is obsessed with Sebastian to the point of ruin, even after a five year period of war where she is forced to grow up very fast and it is shown that Sebastian isn't really the dream boat she'd made him into. It's easy to see that the annoying qualities of the main character are a purposeful move by Anderson, but I think he may have taken it to far. For me, though by the end of the book Victoria has become a savvy, strong, purposeful, empathising character and I found a grudging respect for her, she never truly redeemed herself. It's one of the few books I've ever been pleased about the main character not getting a truly happy ending. There were also certain elements of the book I never quite 'got,' such as the chapter prologues by Victoria's brother George, who is a truly minor character, which never seemed necessary or to advance the plot.
On the other hand, Anderson's imagery is really quite stunning. There were pieces of description that I had to pause and read twice just to fully take it in, such as the initial description of Emerald Hill, where Victoria lives for a time during the war. Anderson's depiction of the Japanese invasion of Singapore was respectfully done, while truly highlighting the horrors of the period. Asia's role in WWII is not a subject I know an awful lot about, and this book has made me want to find out more. Aside from Victoria, there are some well drawn and very memorable characters. The Australian salesman Joe was obviously going to be significant, but his character evolves in such a way that he still takes you by surprise. Elizabeth, Sebastian's English fiance who for various reasons ends up being sheltered by Victoria for a majority of the war is a character that Anderson forces us to re-examine at the last moments in a truly horrifying way and her experience of the war is probably one that will stay with me longer than Victoria's.
Overall, Amber Road is a readable book in a not-often touched setting, but might just have to many flaws to make it memorable.
3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 on Goodreads.