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Excerpt from We, the Survivors by Tash Aw, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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We, the Survivors

by Tash Aw

We, the Survivors by Tash Aw X
We, the Survivors by Tash Aw
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 336 pages

    Sep 2020, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Print Excerpt


October 2nd

You want me to talk about life, but all I've talked about is failure, as if they're the same thing, or at least so closely entwined that I can't separate the two – like the trees you see growing in the half-ruined buildings in the Old Town. Roots clinging to the outside of the walls, holding the bricks and stone and whatever remains of the paint together, branches pushing through holes in the roof. Sometimes there's almost nothing left of the roof, if you can even call it that – just fragments of clay tiles or rusty tin propped up by the canopy of leaves. A few miles out of town, on the other side of Kapar headed towards the coast, you'll find a shophouse with the roots of a jungle fig creeping down the front pillars of the building, the entire structure swallowed up by the tree – the doorway is now just a shadowy space that leads into the heart of a huge tangle of foliage. Where does one end and the other begin? Which one is alive, which is dead? Still, on the ground floor of these houses, there'll be a business or a shop, some kind of small operation, an old guy who'll patch up your tyres for twenty bucks. Or a printing press that makes those cheap leaflets advertising closing-down sales at the local mall. Or a cake shop with nothing in the chiller cabinets except for two pieces of kuih lapis that have been there for three weeks. The packets of biscuits on the shelves are covered in the dust that drifts across from the construction sites nearby, where they're building the new railway or shopping mall or God knows what. These people haven't made a decent living for twenty years. They're seventy-five, eighty years old. Still alive, but their business is being taken over by a tree. Imagine that.

That night, after the killing – or the culpable homicide not amounting to murder, as you politely call it – I walked for many hours in the dark. I can't tell you how long. I tried to hang on to a sense of time, kept looking at the sky for signs of dawn, I even quickened my stride to make each step feel like one full second, like the ticking of that clock on the wall over there, that right now sounds so quick. Tick, tick, tick. But that night each second stretched into a whole minute, each minute felt like a lifetime, and there was nothing I could do to speed things up.

My shirt was wet – not just damp, but properly wet – and it clung to my back like a second skin; only that skin did not belong to me, but to a separate living organism, cold and heavy, weighing me down. As I walked further and further away from what I now come to think of as the scene of the crime (but didn't then – it was just a darkened spot on the riverbank, indistinguishable from any other), I listened out for the sirens of police cars, expecting to hear them at any moment. I kept thinking, They're coming for me, this is the end, the mata are going to catch me and throw me in jail forever. I said out loud, You're finished. This really is the end for you. Hearing my own voice calmed me. Nothing had ever felt so absolute and certain. The police would arrive, they would lock me up, and from then on, all my days would be the same. The thought of being in a small empty cell with nothing to think about for the rest of my life – the idea of this existence comforted me. When I woke up each morning I would see the same four walls that had been there when I fell asleep the night before. Nothing would ever change. What I wore, how long I slept each night, how many times a day I could eat, wash, shit – every decision would be made for me, I would be just the same as everyone else. Someone would take control of my life, and that would be the end of my story. Part of me still wishes things had turned out that way.

I walked through the long grass – it was stringy and sharp and slashed my legs right up to my knees. It was hot, I was wearing shorts, my skin started to sting. Twice, maybe three times, I crossed a bridge and continued to wander along the opposite bank. At first I was looking for my car, but soon I realised I was trying to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. The only problem was that I couldn't remember exactly where it had happened. At some point I started to feel mud between my toes and I realised I'd lost one sandal, which must have got stuck in the swampy ground, so I kicked off the other and walked barefoot. It was late, but not so late that there wasn't any traffic on the highways beyond, and on the bridges overhead. Their headlamps would sometimes illuminate the tops of the trees above me, and suddenly little details would leap out at me, things I wouldn't have noticed if I'd been walking there in the daytime – kites with smiley bird faces snagged in the branches, or plastic bags, lots of them, hanging like swollen ghostlike fruit.

Excerpted from We, the Survivors by Tash Aw. Copyright © 2019 by Tash Aw. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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