A young man's journey to find his biological father
I picked up this book at a MPH book fair by chance - I wasn't exactly looking for a new book to read, but something about this drew me in. A few years ago, I hungered for a good fictional read set in Malaysia, so that's probably the main factor behind my buying this book.
Son Complex is the first novel of former Florida native Kris Williamson. This review might contain some spoiler-tinged information, so beware!
Set in modern Kuala Lumpur, the novel revolves around 23 year old Aaron, an American who flies into Malaysia to dig up the details of his past. His late mother Nora Peltzer spent some time there in the 1980s, and with a stash of old letters on hand, Aaron embarks on a journey to find out more about his possible biological father. The story starts off as he makes his way from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to the house of his mother's former lover, Nasri Aziz. A wealthy politician, Nasri is more than a little unsettled to meet Aaron. With promises of discussing more about his mother's time in Malaysia, Nasri offers the use of his guest room to the young man, and Aaron is introduced to the lady of the house, Datin and their teenaged son Iskandar.
Aaron's real quest is kept a secret from Nasri's wife and son, but that doesn't stop him from getting to know Iskandar, who opens the doors to the seedy underside of Kuala Lumpur to him. In the midst of Datin's obvious dislike of him and his gradual understanding of Malaysian culture, Aaron finds that things are not quite as simple as he expected, and he is soon caught up in a web of secrets and lies.
One thing I liked about this book was the insight on simple Malaysian things; ranging from Aaron's introduction to mamak stalls to his fumblings with the local language. The parts that are communicated in Malay are very natural, and I could hear the words rolling out of the characters' mouths. The story itself is interesting, and I was keen to know how the narrative would unfold - the plot twist at the end was a real eye-opener. The story also touched on quite a few social issues, and we get a glimpse of the mat rempit subculture and the ugly stage of local politics.
At 248 pages, the novel is compact and straight to the point. I kinda wish that it was longer though - there are so many things I would like to know more of. I was craving more character descriptions throughout the story, and I'm afraid that even after finishing the novel, I didn't have a clear face for Aaron, whom I could not connect with. Nasri and Datin were very flat and two-dimensional characters, while Iskandar I think was the most interesting of the pack. Even so, all his motivations were made too clear throughout the novel - some suspense and mystery would have been nice, instead of Iskandar telling Aaron everything from the get-go.
There was also very little information about Nora as Aaron's late mother. It is obvious that he thinks about her a lot, but otherwise I couldn't grasp any emotional connection - she is just a name on paper for the most part, and the letters she wrote to her sister don't share much about her personality. However, Nora's former best friend Sundari added an interesting mix into the cast of characters, and she had me guessing until the end of the novel. As a controversial NGO activist with an intense dislike for Nasri, her interactions with Aaron were interesting and brought out some spirit out of an otherwise mostly passive main character.
In the end, Son Complex was an okay read. There was a lot of promise in the story, and most of it I felt would have been better shown to the reader rather than told - a lot of information was readily given without too much digging about. Even so, it gave me an interesting look at the local scene from the eyes of an outsider, and I hope to keep an eye out for any future novels by Williamson.