Have you ever visited Malaysia? I once had the pleasure and I spent my time in Kuala Lumpur; exploring markets and eating as much street food as possible. I was en-route to New Delhi at the time and my bag was full of Indian novels, so I sadly didn’t read any books set in Malaysia. This list of Malaysian novels is an opportunity to rectify this oversight! Whether you’re a local, planning a trip or interested in Malaysian culture, I hope you’ll find something here too.
These books set in Malaysia span a complex and rich history; traveling across the countries islands, through periods of occupation, waves of immigration and a tapestry of religions. Two of the most highly regarded novels on this list are by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng (short listed for the Man-Booker Prize). His first novel The Gift of Rain is set on the island of Penang, while his second novel The Garden of Evening Mists is set in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Also notable are the works of Tash Aw, a Malaysian author based in London. His first novel The Harmony Silk Factory, is set amongst the cultural tensions of Malaya in the mid-twentieth century. His second novel Five Star Billionaire is not technically set in Malaysia, but about four Malaysians trying to make it big in Shanghai.
Some other highlights among these books set in Malaysia; Evening is the Whole Day is the tale of an Indian family in post-colonial Malaysia. The Rice Mother is a multi-generational story about a Sri Lankan family that spans through the Japanese occupation. The Ghost Bride is a story of traditional beliefs about a Chinese girl in Malacca. And finally, Hungry in Ipoh and KL Noir are perfect for traveling; both are short story collections, which I always find handy when you’re stopping and starting often!
I hope you enjoy these books set in Malaysia; if you have any recommendations for novels that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments below!
Books Set In Malaysia
by Joseph Conrad, 1900
Haunted by the memory of a moment of lost nerve during a disastrous voyage, Jim submits to condemnation by a Court of Inquiry. In the wake of his disgrace he travels to the exotic region of Patusan, and as the agent at this remote trading post comes to be revered as ‘Tuan Jim.’ Here he finds a measure of serenity and respect within himself. However, when a gang of thieves arrives on the island, the memory of his earlier disgrace comes again to the fore, and his relationship with the people of the island is jeopardized.
The Jungle is Neutral
by F. Spencer Chapman, 1949
F. Spencer Chapman, the book’s unflappable author, narrates with typical British aplomb an amazing tale of four years spent as a guerrilla in the jungle, haranguing the Japanese in occupied Malaysia.
Traveling sometimes by bicycle and motorcycle, rarely by truck, and mainly in dugouts, on foot, and often on his belly through the jungle muck, Chapman recruits sympathetic Chinese, Malays, Tamils, and Sakai tribesman into an irregular corps of jungle fighters. Their mission: to harass the Japanese in any way possible.
And The Rain My Drink
by Han Suyin, 1956
It is 1948 and the British in Malaya are struggling to put down a Communist uprising and deal with rising nationalism in the colony. Chinese girl Suyin falls in love with a British police officer and is able to see both sides of the war but she sympathizes more with the Communist guerrillas and is critical of the British colonials. A much-loved classic and an important work in the canon of Singapore literature.
The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy
by Anthony Burgess, 1964
Set in postwar Malaya at the time when people and governments alike are bemused and dazzled by the turmoil of independence, this three-part novel is rich in hilarious comedy and razor-sharp in observation. The protagonist of the work is Victor Crabbe, a teacher in a multiracial school in a squalid village, who moves upward in position as he and his wife maintain a steady decadent progress backward.
The War of the Running Dogs
by Noel Barber, 1971
Only three short years after the end of the Japanese occupation, war came again to Malaya. The Chinese-backed guerrillas called it the War of the Running Dogs—their contemptuous term for those in Malaya who remained loyal to the British. The British Government referred to this bloody and costly struggle as the “Malayan Emergency.” Yet it was a war that lasted 12 years and cost thousands of lives. By the time it was over Malaya had obtained its independence—but on British, not on Chinese or Communist, terms. Here is the war as it was. Here are the planters and their wives on their remote rubber estates, the policemen, the generals and the soldiers, the Malays, Chinese and Indians of a polyglot country, all fighting an astute, ruthless, and well organized enemy.
The Rice Mother
by Rani Manicka, 2002
Nothing in Lakshmi’s childhood, running carefree and barefoot on the sun-baked earth amid the coconut and mango trees of Ceylon, could have prepared her for what life was to bring her. At fourteen, she finds herself traded in marriage to a stranger across the ocean in the fascinating land of Malaysia.
My Life as a Fake
by Peter Carey, 2003
Using as a springboard a real literary hoax that transfixed Australia in his boyhood, Peter Carey wickedly and ruefully explores how a phantom poet taunts, haunts and otherwise destroys his maker, pursuing him from Melbourne to a seedy, sweaty, bitter ending in the tropical chaos of Kuala Lumpur.
The Harmony Silk Factory
by Tash Aw, 2005
The Harmony Silk Factory traces the story of textile merchant Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant living in British Malaya in the first half of the twentieth century. Johnny’s factory is the most impressive structure in the region, and to the inhabitants of the Kinta Valley Johnny is a hero—a Communist who fought the Japanese when they invaded, ready to sacrifice his life for the welfare of his people. But to his son, Jasper, Johnny is a crook and a collaborator who betrayed the very people he pretended to serve, and the Harmony Silk Factory is merely a front for his father’s illegal businesses. This debut novel from Tash Aw gives us an exquisitely written look into another culture at a moment of crisis.
The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng, 2007
Set in Penang, 1939, this book presents a story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.
The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel casts a powerful spell. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.
Evening Is the Whole Day
by Preeta Samarasan, 2008
Set in Malaysia, this spellbinding and already internationally acclaimed debut introduces us to the prosperous Rajasekharan family as its closely guarded secrets are slowly peeled away.
When Chellam, the family’s rubber-plantation-bred servant girl, is dismissed for unnamed crimes, her banishment is the latest in a series of recent, precipitous losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha’s life. A few short weeks before, Aasha’s grandmother Paati passed away under mysterious circumstances and her older sister, Uma, departed for Columbia University – leaving Aasha alone to cope with her mostly absent father, her bitter mother, and her imperturbable older brother.
The Orientalist and the Ghost
by Susan Barker, 2008
Dark themes of colonial misconduct, racial prejudice, and doomed love resonate throughout this novel, yet it is infused with characteristic humor and warmth. It opens in Malaysia during the 1950s Communist insurrection when a young Englishman, Christopher, falls in love with a Chinese girl. The book then moves to 1969 where Frances, Christopher’s Eurasian teenage daughter, is seduced by a Chinese teacher twice her age and drawn into the Malay-Chinese race riots in Kuala Lumpur. The final part of the book travels to 1990s London; Frances’ two mixed-race children live with their grandfather on a council estate, and embark on a quest to discover the truth behind their mother’s death.
A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder
by Shamini Flint, 2009
Inspector Singh is in a bad mood. He’s been sent from his home in Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to solve a murder that has him stumped. Chelsea Liew – the famous Singaporean model – is on death row for the murder of her ex-husband. She swears she didn’t do it, he thinks she didn’t do it, but no matter how hard he tries to get to the bottom of things, he still arrives back at the same place – that Chelsea’s husband was shot at point blank range, and that Chelsea had the best motivation to pull the trigger: he was taking her kids away from her. Now Inspector Singh must pull out all the stops to crack a crime that could potentially free a beautiful and innocent woman and reunite a mother with her children. There’s just one problem – the Malaysian police refuse to play ball..
by Chan Ling Yap, 2009
Set in the late 1930s and 1960s, this title tells a tale of Mei Yin, a young Chinese girl from an impoverished family. It is not just a fictional story of the events that ripped one family apart, but a taste of Malaysia’s historical political and cultural changes during its transition from colonial rule to independence and beyond.
I, Too, Am Malay
by Zaid Ibrahim, 2009
Autobiography of Zaid Ibrahim, a Malay politician and former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of legal affairs and judicial reform.
I, Too, Am Malay, is a collection of Zaid Ibrahim’s innermost thoughts on values, attitudes and how future politics in Malaysia must be based on that which is positive and unites all ethnic groups. Tackling controversial issues such as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy), the rule of law and the role of the monarchy, Zaid speaks candidly but sincerely about the way forward for democracy in this country currently plagued by political crises.
The Japanese Lover
by Rani Manicka, 2010
Parvathi leaves her native Ceylon for Malaya and an arranged marriage to a wealthy businessman. But her father has cheated, supplying a different girl’s photograph, and Kasu Marimuthu, furious, threatens to send her home in disgrace. Gradually husband and wife reach an accommodation, and the naïve young girl learns to assume the air of sophisticated mistress of a luxurious estate. She even adopts his love child and treats Rubini as her own daughter – a generous act which is rewarded by a long-wished-for son.
by Di Morrissey, 2010
When Australian Julie Reagan discovers a book written about wild Malaysia in the 1970s, she decides to find out more about the author – her great aunt. Why did her grandmother refuse to speak about her sister who disappeared from the family, 60 years before? What caused such a severe rift?
Julie is invited to stay with her cousins who run the plantation founded by her great grandfather in Malaya a hundred years ago, and she decides to visit in the hope of finding clues to this family mystery. What Julie finds sends her spiralling through generations of loves, deaths, tragedy and the challenges of the present until she discovers her grandmother’s shocking secret.
The Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng, 2011
It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself.
The White Pearl
by Kate Furnivall, 2011
Malaya, 1941. Connie Thornton plays her role as a dutiful wife and mother without complaint. She is among the fortunate after all-the British rubber plantation owners reaping the benefits of the colonial life. But Connie feels as though she is oppressed, crippled by boredom, sweltering heat, a loveless marriage…
Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore
by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, 2012
What happens when a country splits apart? Forty-five years ago, Singapore separated from Malaysia. Since then, the two countries have developed along their own paths. Malaysia has given preference to the majority of Malay Muslims – the bumiputera, or sons of the soil. Singapore, meanwhile, has tried to build a meritocracy – ostensibly color-blind, yet more encouraging perhaps to some Singaporeans than to others. How have these policies affected ordinary people? How do these two divergent nations and their peoples now see each other and the world around them?
The House Of Trembling Leaves
by Julian Lees, 2013
In 1936 Malaysia, Lu See is ordered to marry a fat, one-eyed banker whom she loathes. Instead, she flees the Juru river for Cambridge and the dream of becoming her country’s first female undergraduate. When the dream dissolves in tragedy only her life-sustaining friendship with the Tibetan maid, Sum Sum, saves her; but then Sum Sum disappears, leaving a gift of unbearable poignancy. Returning to Malaysia, Lu See survives the Japanese occupation and Communist insurgency but, as her life approaches its end, knows she must find Sum Sum and become reconciled once more. From Cambridge to Malaysia and a nunnery in the mountains of Tibet, The House of Trembling Leaves is the timeless story of two mothers and a daughter, of war and survival, but most of all of an undying friendship.
KL Noir: Red
by Amir Muhammad , 2013
KL Noir: Red is the first of 4 volumes about the Malaysian capital city’s dark side. There are 14 short stories and one essay about the seedy, the sinister and sometimes the spooky. You will find murder, drug-dealing, kidnapping, sexual depravity, prostitution, celebrity secrets, suicides, academic rivalry, gangsters, police brutality, cannibalism, black magic, creepy rituals, political corruption and even busking. It’s all totally fictional. Well, maybe the cannibalism is.
The Ghost Bride
by Yangsze Choo, 2013
“One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride…” Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.
Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.
by Dinah Jefferies, 2013
What happens when a mother and her daughters are separated, and who do they become when they believe it might be forever?
Malaya 1955. It’s the eve of the Cartwright family’s departure from Malaya. Eleven-year-old Emma can’t understand why they’re leaving without their mother, or why her taciturn father is refusing to answer her questions.
Returning from a visit to a friend sick with polio, Emma’s mother, Lydia, arrives home to an empty house ─ there’s no sign of her husband Alec, her daughters, or even the servants. The telephone line is dead. Acting on information from Alec’s boss, Lydia embarks on a dangerous journey across civil-war-torn Malaya to find her family.
The Separation is a heart-wrenching page-turner, set in 1950s Malaya and post-war England.
Five Star Billionaire
by Tash Aw, 2013
Note: this one is about a group of Malaysians living in Shanghai, not technically falling into “books set in Malaysia”.
Phoebe is a factory girl who has come to Shanghai with the promise of a job – but when she arrives she discovers that the job doesn’t exist. Gary is a country boy turned pop star who is spinning out of control. Justin is in Shanghai to expand his family’s real-estate empire, only to find that he might not be up to the task. He has long harboured a crush on Yinghui, who has reinvented herself from a poetry-loving, left-wing activist to a successful Shanghai businesswoman. She is about to make a deal with the shadowy figure of Walter Chao, the five-star billionaire of the novel, who – with his secrets and his schemes – has a hand in the lives of each of the characters. All bring their dreams and hopes to Shanghai, the shining symbol of the New China, which, like the novel’s characters, is constantly in flux and which plays its own fateful role in the lives of its inhabitants. Five Star Billionaire, the dazzling kaleidoscopic new novel by the award-winning writer Tash Aw, offers rare insight into China today, with its constant transformations and its promise of possibility.
Hungry in Ipoh
by Hadi M. Nor , 2015
Hungry in Ipoh compiles 15 short stories based on Ipoh—a city famous for its delicacies. These are tales about different people—both locals and outsiders, from the past and the present—and their connection to the city.
Every writer was free to explore the theme however they wanted, while still maintaining the grittiness, bravado, and spirit of pulp fiction the publisher is (in)famous for. Above all else, this anthology celebrates the diversity of Ipoh. You’ll find love, humor, horror, nostalgia, melancholy, and so much more. Some are mouth-watering, while others can be stomach-churning
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds
by Selina Siak Chin Yoke, 2016
Facing challenges in an increasingly colonial world, Chye Hoon, a rebellious young girl, must learn to embrace her mixed Malayan-Chinese identity as a Nyonya—and her destiny as a cook, rather than following her first dream of attending school like her brother.
Amidst the smells of chillies and garlic frying, Chye Hoon begins to appreciate the richness of her traditions, eventually marrying Wong Peng Choon, a Chinese man. Together, they have ten children. At last, she can pass on the stories she has heard—magical tales of men from the sea—and her warrior’s courage, along with her wonderful kueh (cakes).
When the Future Comes Too Soon
by Selina Siak Chin Yoke, 2017
In Japanese-occupied Malaya, lives are shattered and a woman discovers her inner strength in a world ravaged by war. Following the death of their matriarch, the lives of Chye Hoon’s family turned upside down. Now that the British have fled and the Japanese have conquered, their once-benign world changes overnight.
Amid the turmoil, Chye Hoon’s daughter-in-law, Mei Foong, must fend for her family as her husband, Weng Yu, becomes increasingly embittered. Challenged in ways she never could have imagined and forced into hiding, Mei Foong finds a deep reservoir of resilience she did not know she had and soon draws the attentions of another man.
Is Mei Foong’s resolve enough to save herself, her marriage, and her family? Only when peace returns to Malaya will she learn the full price she must pay for survival.
Once We Were There
by Bernice Chauly, 2017
Journalist Delonix Regia chances upon the cultured and irresistible Omar amidst the upheaval of the Reformasi movement in Kuala Lumpur. As the city roils around them, they find solace in love, marriage, and then parenthood. But when their two-year-old daughter Alba is kidnapped, Del must confront the terrible secret of a city where babies are sold and girls trafficked.
By turns heart-breaking and suspenseful, Once We Were There is a debut novel of profound insight. It is Bernice Chauly at her very best.
What do you think of these books set in Malaysia?
Have a great book recommendation I’ve missed? Are you planning a trip to Malaysia soon? I’d love to hear about more about your travels and tips for books set in Malaysia in the comments below!