Warning: some of the characters in this book are immensely irritating! This doesn't make it a bad book, but it did make me want to strangle Walter at regular intervals. And he's fictional. That's an accomplishment.
The Singapore Grip takes place in
Singapore during the Second World War, in the weeks leading up to the
Japanese attack. It focuses on the industrialists who have made their
fortune there, and and many, many people who try to cling to what they
consider normalcy, even in the face of imminent attack.
Blackett is behind the immensely profitable rubber company Blackett
& Webb. They are coming up to an anniversary of the company, and
Walter is obsessed with the anniversary celebrations, and how it will
show that Blackett & Webb have done nothing but good in Singapore,
are unreservedly forces for good in the area and the world. Walter's
belief in the goodness of capitalism, and himself in particular is set
against labour unrest, and many demonstrable ways in which he and his
family and others like him have enriched themselves at the cost of
others, that most of what they have been good for is amassing wealth and
not for, say, treating their workers well, or making sure anyone in
Singapore gets a fair deal.
They've made money, and Walter
doesn't see himself as a bad guy, so he figures that it is business that
makes the world go round, and without him doing what he does, everyone
would be much worse off. Matthew, the son of Blackett's deceased
partner, Webb, does not see the world that way. Matthew is too much of
an idealist, but he perceptively takes apart Walter's claims to any kind
of moral high ground. Matthew, on the other hand, has ideas for where
the world can go that ignore human frailty and self-interest in favour
of believing that everyone would take care of each other if we only let
them. Laudable, but not in any way practical.
And as the war
edges closer, Matthew becomes immersed in immediate, as Japanese bombs
start to fall, and his house becomes the centre for a fire brigade, and
he spends his days trying to put out fires in Singapore, scorched and
blackened. In the meantime, Walter continues to worry about his
anniversary celebrations, and the immense amount of rubber he had
waiting in his warehouses.
The Singapore Grip is an
intriguing look at inertia in the face of imminent disaster, and the
ways in which people cling to the normal in extreme circumstances, even
at great cost, and without much heed for those around them. It is also
an indictment of self-obsession of the wealthy, and their belief that
what is good for them must be good for others. And it is about a city
where war edges ever closer, and the question becomes whether or not
they will survive the bombing or the occupation.
I can't say
this is the most gripping book I ever read, but the characters are very
interesting, even when I wanted to strangle them.