REVIEW: The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
I got this book for free as part of Amazon’s Kindle First program – if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’re offered a choice of one of four books free each month. I’ll confess these books have been piling up on my Kindle. I did try one, and dumped it early on (rare for me; I’m kind of a compulsive book finisher) because I really couldn’t get into it. The Moonlight Palace was the second one I tried, and if it wasn’t an unqualified success, it was at least a modest one.
What drew me to the book was the unusual setting – 1920s Singapore. The heroine (and first-person narrator) is 17-year-old Agnes Hussein, last in a line that descended from a Sultanate. Agnes and her unorthodox (more on that in a moment) family reside in a crumbling edifice known as the Kampong Glam Palace. For as long as she can remember, Agnes has been absorbed in the struggle to hold on to the palace and keep it from falling down around the family’s ears.
Agnes’ parents and brother died during the 1918 worldwide flu pandemic; she lives with Uncle Chachi (actually her paternal grandfather’s 88-year-old brother), as well as British Grandfather (her mother’s father), and his wife, Nei-Nei Down. Nei-Nei Down is so called because Uncle Chachi’s late wife was addressed as Nei-Nei (meaning “grandmother” in Chinese) Up – Uncle Chachi and Nei-Nei Up had lived upstairs in the Kampong Glam Palace, while British Grandfather and Nei-Nei Down lived downstairs. The household also includes an aged servant (the only one left of what were once many) and several paying boarders, including Agnes’ childhood friend Dawid.
Agnes is a “Singapore mixed breed” as she puts it – half Chinese, a fourth Indian and a fourth British. It’s unfortunately not made very clear if her mixed status has any effect on her social standing in Singapore. There is a reference late in the book to British Grandfather having lost his military commission when he married a Singaporean, but other than that it’s treated as something of a non-issue, which seems unlikely to me and a missed opportunity to give the story some depth.
The plot of The Moonlight Palace feeling strangely episodic – I say strangely because it doesn’t somehow feel like it’s *intended* to be episodic, yet the narrative somehow never really achieves cohesion. Agnes is in her last year of high school – she gets a job in a jewelry store through her Uncle Chachi, in order to make some desperately needed extra money for the family. Later, she gets another job, writing society and food columns for a local newspaper. The major dramatic turning point of the novel occurs on the night of the festival of Deepavali (also known as Diwali; the Hindi Festival of Lights). Agnes and Dawid are out celebrating, hoping to see fireworks, when one of the family’s boarders, Omar Wahlid, is arrested for a serious crime. In the course of trying to help him and another boarder, Wei (of whom Agnes is fond and who is blameless but arrested along with Omar), Agnes meets a British policeman named Geoffrey Brown and becomes seriously infatuated with him.
One of the problems with the narrative is that Agnes misses obvious signs that Brown is not all that he seems. Nei-Nei Down hates him, as does Agnes’ best friend from school, Bridget. There’s something obviously going on in relation to a deal that British Grandfather made with the police to save Wei and Omar Wahlid from imprisonment and execution. But Agnes remains blissfully, deliberately (it seems) ignorant. She is young, of course, and dazzled by Brown’s attention and his British good looks – his blond hair, white teeth and air of success. But it’s frustrating to read a first-person narrative in which the narrator so clearly telegraphs things that she herself is missing at the time.
The things I liked about The Moonlight Palace: the writing, the unusual setting, the strong sense of place, and the characters. In addition to Agnes, who is a likable heroine (even when she’s being obtuse), and her family, there is Mr. Kahani, the kind owner of the jewelry store where Agnes works. Mr. Kahani is blind (though he sometimes shows an uncanny knowledge of things that only sighted people should know, making Agnes wonder about his blindness), an Indian Jew and apparently, it comes up late in the book, an opium addict. This last detail was one of the things that gave the book an episodic feel – it’s not a big plot point and I’m not sure why it even comes up, since it’s mentioned then dropped. There are also Agnes’ friends Bridget and Dawid; Bridget is a red-headed Irish girl from a poor family; Dawid is a sweet boy who clearly pines for Agnes. There’s Mr. Williams (called by Agnes “Mr. Wms.”, because that is how he always signs himself, “as if he could not be bothered to write out his own name”), the terrifying managing editor of the Singapore Gate, the newspaper Agnes goes to work for. Many of these minor characters add color and a bit of depth to the story, but they also left me as a reader wanting more.
Which brings me back to what I didn’t like about The Moonlight Palace: the story feels superficial and lacking in narrative tension. Stuff happens; Agnes doesn’t know about Geoffrey Brown’s true nature, then she does. She confronts him, but it lacks the dramatic payoff it should have. The Kampong Glam Palace (or rather, the family’s ownership of it and continued residence in it) is threatened, but there’s never any doubt that the matter will be resolved (and it is, in a bit of a deus ex machina that also provides Agnes with a more suitable beau). The setting is lovely and often evocatively drawn, but opportunities are missed to really give the reader a sense of what Singapore was like in that era – for instance, there are clearly political and likely racial tensions between the various groups occupying the island, but as Agnes seems largely oblivious to these, the reader only gets glimpses of deeper issues. The book can be frustrating to read it at times, because it feels like there could have been more – more to the story, more to the characterization, more context for the events that occur.
My final grade for The Moonlight Palace is a straight B.