Book 112: The Moonlight Palace



"I let the words settle there between us a moment, in true Singapore style. Perhaps I hoped if I let them rest long enough, they would simply disappear. They might vanish into the night without a trace." 

Dates read: December 21-25, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Families. We can't chose them, they're just given to us, the good and the bad. While some people have genuinely toxic and damaging relatives, most of us just have members of our families that we like a little less than some others. But one of the beautiful things about families, I think, is the way that at the end of the day, despite all the baggage and hang-ups they can bring, is that when push comes to shove, they can really band together and fight as a team. Knowing that my family has my back has always been a great source of comfort for me, personally.

Agnes Hussein, the protagonist of Liz Rosenberg's The Moonlight Palace, has a non-traditional family, but a loving one all the same. Her parents and brother all died in a flu epidemic, so she lives with her uncle and grandparents in a ramshackle palace in 1920s Singapore. You see, Agnes is the youngest descendant of the former sultan of Singapore, who gave control of the country over to the British and received a tenuously-legal grant of residency in a former royal palace, Kampong Glam, in return. The family is allowed to stay as long as a male of the royal line still lives there, which has created some problems. For one, Agnes's Uncle Chachi, no spring chicken, is the last remaining male of the line and Agnes is only a teenager, so she's not going to be having a baby anytime soon. Second, the family has virtually no income remaining but consider themselves too genteel to work, so the palace is deteriorating around them because they can't afford repairs.

They take on boarders to make ends meet, and their cozy, if perilously held together, little world begins to fall apart when one of those boarders, a young Muslim from Malaysia, is caught trying to carry out a bombing. One of the others, a shy Chinese math student, is caught up along with him and in order to protect him, Agnes induces her grandfather to make a bargain with the charming young British policeman who is investigating the crime. Although the cop and Agnes begin to see each other and she falls hard for him, he's more than she initially thinks he is.

There's more than happens after that, of course, but that should be enough to give you a general idea. The real strength of this book, to me, was the warmth of the family relationships that Rosenberg created. Agnes might have lost her parents, but she didn't lose out on the experience of family love. Their desire to protect her from the worst of the realities they faced, and her desire to help them as much as she could, felt true and sure. On the other hand, for a fairly slim volume, there were probably too many plots going on that were underdeveloped...there are side plots with several different love interests for Agnes, as well as the jobs she takes and the people she works with, that are only ever background noise. A more focused plot might have made for a more successful book, because while this was a pleasant enough read and got me interested enough in the time and place (I don't read a ton of books set in Asia) that I went looking for more information, it's not really more than just average. It's under 200 pages, so if you're interested in a relatively untaxing reading experience to introduce you to a setting you don't usually read about, it's enjoyable enough. But it's not so meritorious that I feel like recommending it without qualification.

Tell me, blog friends...which family member are you closest to?

One year ago, I was reading: Snow (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

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