The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 Aug 2017

Member Reviews

It reads like a fairy tale- dreamy, otherworldly. The language in the story appealed to me quickly and I never grew tired of the tale. My only disappointment came at the end. It wrapped up too quickly! It should have had a sequel. Loved the characters! So interesting. I took long enough reading it, having put it aside on several occasions the past two years, but I do intend to re-read it later this year, over the summer, when I will actually have my own time to indulge!
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"The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds" began strong. It was interesting to learn about Che Hoon's childhood and cultural heritage. As the story progressed, and Che Hoon's troubles turned from childish interests to culturally and age-appropriate concerns, it retained its interesting concepts and the characters remained important pieces of the overall tapestry - but through the minor ups and downs, there was no real moment in the story where the reader thinks, "This is it! It's the climax of the story!"

The overall use of language retains an exotic and enticing feel and the reader is able to almost palpably feel Che Hoon's fears, her worries, her moments of joy and her moments of fear. It is deserving of three of five stars because near the conclusion, the drama becomes less exciting and a reader can happily put the book down and forget to pick it up again for a while. However, once the reader resumes their place in the story,  they are offered a quiet, semi-satisfying conclusion.
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The best parts of this book involve the main character's upbringing in her Malaysian household. Learning about the various aspects of the culture are interesting and something I hadn't read before. After the main character gets married, though, the story starts to drag. She has ten children, most of whom have names that are incredibly similar, making it hard to determine who she's talking about. She also spends much of the novel complaining that her children aren't going to carry on the customs her parents passed down to her, but at the same time, she just kind of lets her kids do whatever they want, even if it means she has to take on extra jobs to make money to bail them out of their bad ideas. Which means they never learn from their mistakes. The writing style was inconsistent, as sometimes dialogue was written in perfect English, but then would suddenly switch to sound more like native English speakers assume non-native speakers would talk.
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I will start by saying that I received an online copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange of a honest review. 
I've started a new project which will continue during the following years, involving reading one book from each country of the world. Because of the "World Book Tour", I've started looking for more diverse books and different authors. Since then, I noticed a growing interest on books about Asia or with Asian characters. Therefore, and since I love historic books, it isn't surprising that Selina's book got my attention when I saw it on NetGalley. The idea of confrontation between the past and the future, the traditions and the new, especially on a colonised world in the middle on a change making process completely grabbed my attention. Besides, knowing it was narrated by a woman from a traditional Malayan family, where the feminine was seen as the pillar of the home-hold, made me even more curious.
This isn't a fast paced book. I admit I had to read it only during the day and specially on my daily commutes because I needed some attention to keep up with the story. But it's beautifully written and if you love History and family sagas please don't give up in the beginning.
Chye Hoon is our narrator and heroin and this story just exists because she made it happen through her thoughts about the world and what it brought to her and her family. It's a story about the daily life on XX Century Malaya so you can expect many details about common actions and need and how they influenced the life of this little woman.You will also be able to follow her during all her life, so it's was almost like reading a biography instead of a fiction work. To that I will credit the inspiration the author got from her grandmother's life, who was the great inspiration to this book's creation. With that said, sometimes I could see that the author really took real facts from her family to make the story go forward. But because of that, since some were casualties of a regular life, they didn't cause much impact as she wanted.
What I enjoyed the most here was the perception of the same time period in the other part of the world. Like World War I for example, and how the Malayans felt and saw this warlike conflict from the distance. It was also interesting to scrutinise the other aspects of life and social manners through the thoughts of Chye Hoon and look for other facts and references to help interpreting the various situations that happened to her family and friends.
Like all family sagas, it had sweet and sour moments and was quite interesting for me to see who a rebellious girl turned out so conservation and connected to her roots and origins. I'm not sure if I will continue with the story - if the next book happens to get launched - but I can assure you I enjoyed to discovered this family and all their connections.
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This story is a masterpiece! I’m never quite sure what to expect when I pick up a book set in a different culture and I was very pleasantly surprised by this story. The author has based this story on the life of her great-grandmother and she must have been an amazing woman. The story begins in 1878 and is set in Malaysia. Chye Hoon in born into a Nyonya household and is trained in the tradition. Her marriage is arranged for her by her parents and she is fortunate because they choose a handsome young man who will become not only her husband but her best friend. The newlyweds settle in Ipoh just before the turn of the century and their family grows right along with the town. They will have 10 children before tragedy strikes and Chye Hoon must find the courage to go on. She turns to her Nyonya training to support her family. 

Chye Hoon shows great strength in the midst of a quickly changing world. She never learns to read or write but she manages to start not 1 but 3 successful businesses. She faces incredible personal losses but her family keeps her going. Her story is beautifully told in this book. Since Chye Hoon supports her family with her Nyonya cooking there is a lot of talk about food in this story and the author’s descriptions will have your mouth watering in no time. The author also does an excellent job of describing the culture and the tension between the white rulers and the Malaysian people. I am highly recommending this book, especially for readers who enjoy learning about other cultures. This could also be a great book club pick.
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Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Chye Hoon narrates the story of her life (born in 1878) with perspective from her Malayan-Chinese upbringing.  Chye Hoon’s fate is not one she had ever imagined, but nonetheless she survives widowhood and raises 10 children on her own by her strength and inner resolve.  Along the way, we are taken to a different country, culture and time.  

Once a rebellious child, Chye Hoon wanted to go to school, but instead is groomed for marriage.  While she never wanted a husband, he soon becomes her best friend.  As rebellious as she was, she later clings to the traditions of marriage, family and food that are important to her in a culture undergoing Westernization.  Her story, loosely based on the author’s grandmother, is wonderfully rich with feelings:  love, loss, hope, sorrow and friendship.  

There is a glossary, which is useful in understanding the foreign words and phrases throughout.  Still, the story flows along and held my interest throughout.  The downside to the writing was the use of dialog.  Those who are uneducated speak in broken English, quite the contrary of Chye Hoon’s eloquent narrative.  It is jarring and hard to interpret at times, but don’t let that stop you.  This is a long book at 474 pages, but the writing allows you to place yourself there and imagine life in that time and place.  The sights and smells are wonderfully descriptive, so make some time to savor the book.  

Enjoy-lah!
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Admirable

I feel that writing a review for this book is a daunting task, this is an incredible book- my obsession of the month. I was drawn to the eloquent writing, especially the lovely descriptions of the land- my favourite was the quiet village in Songkhla. And, I was besotted by the beautiful cultural values and Chye Hoon's strength in the face of her fears. We learn of her life which she recounts to her grand daughter, Lai Hin, a young girl so alike to herself when she was of that age: fiery and fearless. Both ever curious and yearning to learn of the stories and tales of their ancestors.

Chye Hoon recognises this for herself, admiring it, 'I had to smile. Lai Hin, then only three years old, was already displaying the verve for which I was famous. She unnerved the world with her intense almond-shaped eyes the way I had once done. My fire and fearless tongue were known throughout Ipoh, the Malayan mining town where I had lived most of my life. This reputation had nearly been my downfall. Temper in a woman is only tolerated, never celebrated. Neighbours had hissed about the potent mix of blood in my veins, lethal for any girl. How would I ever find a husband?'

Chye Hoon was brought up with stories, she thrived on them, hoping that she could possess the courage of the heroes in the tales her mother would tell her. Just like the heroic Hang Tuah, she sought her own magical sword, her own talent, brought to life through her embrace of her Malaysian culture. With the upsetting threat of her culture being no more, she makes it her duty to not allow her children to forget their roots. She wants to raise them properly and not have anyone accuse her of letting them forget the legacies of their people. As a young girl, she fought against her culture believing it to be a barrier. She didn't want to cook or be a housewife, she sought a different life, the kitchen was the place she hated most. This is something I related to, cooking is a skill that doesn't come easy for some of us but, we soon find that she still embraces this part of her identity as a Nyonya woman. This is something that made the book unique, usually you find books in which the character challenges his or her culture and seeks to create their own identity. While I do like those books too, I have to say this difference was interesting.

She soon has an arranged marriage to Peng Choon and finds herself happy with her new life. 'When we were first married, I asked Peng Choon why he had picked me. He laughed. He was a man who knew what he wanted: a family run by a strong hand –a healthy woman who could cook, bear him sons and look after the household. He expected to travel and needed an independent wife who would get things done without him. So when the matchmaker mentioned me, he immediately became interested. "You sure-ah?" she had asked. "This girl has strong will and a temper.".... One morning, when he followed me to the market, he noticed that the stallholders didn’t try to cheat me, as they did other women. That was the day he decided he would marry me. All this he told me, and more. In those first lonely months my husband also became my best friend.'
We witness all the highs and lows of her life: her husband's homesickness, her loneliness, her battle with her mother who she grows closer to as she gets older. Then of her life as a widow, the beautiful friendships she creates; the friend who believes she, too, should change with the times; her survival over the loss of two of her children which only sharpens the divide in her family. We see Chye Hoon's talent with her business and, her relentless pursuit of a better life for her children even if that means to make huge sacrifices.

All the while, many of her children begin to adapt into the ever changing world, they strive to be more modern and so, they begin to follow the ways of the West. Their own culture is foregone and for some of them it seems to have been neglected so severely that it has been forgotten. This book will always be dear to me, I was captured by the author's writing, her attention to detail, in her description of Chye Hoon's struggles, be that of Chye Hoon's realisation in early life of the sexism so prevalent in her society or the great lengths she goes, motivated by her desire to understand her children. I admired her strength in her refusal to change for her children, in spite of their growing refusal of their cultural values. Some things shouldn't change, some values are timeless and should remain.

Her culture, and her mission to sustain it, is a pivotal force in her many decisions, whether she sends her children to English schools where they will only learn the English history or whether she sends her girls at all since she was raised on the belief that educated women don't find husbands. But still, her own love of learning gets in the way, she battles with constant indecision- not knowing how to raise her children, not knowing whether she will later regard her actions as mistakes. Her culture also serves as her survival mechanism, her sword, a gift that her mother had passed on to her and one that she doesn't wish to deny her children. This is a struggle I feel that many parents face, indeed there were many parallels between this book and my own parents' attitudes and my lifestyle- the choices made for me and, those I've made for myself.

Certainly, I liked Chye Hoon's patience and her ability to handle situations even when they were new to her, be that of her son wishing marry a white woman, (this wasn't accepted at the time this book is set in), or how she dealt with a son who drained the family finances with no concern for those whose lives he was causing such hardship. Indeed, how she managed was nothing short of admirable and I was pleased to discover that this character was inspired by the author's own great grandmother. I admit there were many times when I forgot that a lot of this book was a work of fiction. It was a very immersive read, and one I do recommend.

I received this book through NetGalley.
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In 1878 in a small Malay village, little Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian of Chinese descent), is visiting a temple. Chye tries to shake a lit jos-stick in her hand, but it flies out, landing on the Goddess of Mercy’s marble forehead. She is punished and told that it’s because she is a Tiger Girl (born in the Year of the Tiger). Several other incidents follow, such as her throwing a wooden clog at a rude shopkeeper. These reinforce her reputation of being ill-tempered.

While she wants to go to school with her brother, she is instead taught to cook, like other girls. Although Chye’s sisters are wed, and her friend marries a “white-devil,” Chye has difficulty finding a suitor, which worries her mother. Eventually, a matchmaker arranges her marriage to Peng, a Chinese immigrant. They lead a good life and have ten children. But when Peng returns to China, Chye is left alone to raise her large family and provide for them in ingenious ways.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke acknowledges that this story is inspired by her great-grandmother’s life and times, as told to her by her mother and other family elders. However, it seems that Yoke has included too much factual information, which makes this novel read more like a biography. While there are many detailed descriptions of the Malaysian people, land, cuisine, and British influence in the pre-WWII years, which would be of great interest to those researching that period, they tend to slow down the story. The plot is also somewhat obscure, and some storylines are not fully resolved. However, the narrative is well written. The technique used to write the characters’ dialogue, some in broken and some in perfect English, differentiates their social status perfectly. The novel’s open ending indicates that a sequel will follow.

This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review Issue 79 (February 2017)
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The Woman who breathed two worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yok is a beautiful story about one woman’s life in a changing world. Chye Hoon was born in 1878 of Malayan-Chinese descent and raised with deep and meaningful family and cultural traditions. As a young girl, she often rebelled against the role she was destined to play and as she approaches marriageable age, it becomes clear that no one wants to marry her. Until one day, when she was 20, a man does marry her and the story switches to her life as a beloved wife and a mother of their seven children. The winds of change are in the air and Chye Hoon and her husband, Wong Peng Choon, must decide where they go in a changing world. The British began to take control of the area and Chye Hoon fears her traditions are fading. Will she be able to pass on the traditions to her children in the hopes they will still be passed on to future generations? Will the life she has known no longer exist?
The Woman who breathed two worlds is an amazing story with such details and depth that it is long; however, extremely enjoyable. I enjoyed Chye Hoon as the fiery young girl, then as the devoted wife and mother. The title has several meanings in the story which I will not give away before their discovery as you read is a part of the story. I loved the details in the descriptions of life in China and surrounding areas, the complex history and the people who lived there. While the names were confusing and took some time to get straight, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I loved that the story is based on the author’s ancestor’s life from birth to death and she does it so well. I highly recommend The Woman who breathed two worlds. Take your time and soak in the story of this wonderful and amazing woman.

The Woman who breathed Two Worlds
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in paperback and on the Kindle
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Great look at a really unfamiliar culture. Really enjoyed reading about this families travel through the 20th century and the changes as a result.
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I liked the story, but it dragged way too much. I almost gave up half way through. At about 2/3 in it got much better and I wanted it to go on longer.
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This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a woman from Maylasia, where she grew up and when she married her husband Wong Peng Choon, he moved her to a very small town called Ipoh. She had 10 children in the 10 years that they were married. He went back to China to check on his family and passed away there, leaving her to care for all of their small children by herself. She tries to raise them in the old ways that she was raised, but the white man has came to her village. She tells her life story, how she raised her children, started a business, wedded off her children, saw her grandchildren come into the world, and saw the world change before she passes away. A very interesting story!! I loved it!!
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A fascinating insight into a different culture, with lots of vivid descriptive detail that really brought history to life. I did find the main character a little hard to relate to, and found the dialect used for a lot of the dialogue a little offputting
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Thank you Selina Slak Chin Yoke and Netgalley for a copy in exchange for a review.
First off I must admit that this is the first asian fiction that I have ever been able to read past the first few chapters.. I have tried many times but just not clicked with the stories at all. Well I certainly didn't have trouble reading this one and its a debut so I have even more pleasurable stories of the Chye Hoons family to come. 
I did feel that the writing of the narrative was very western at times, and I suppose that was the point of this tale, the growing of a family living in a country with western ideas and influences.
Highly reccommended and I will be lining up for the second installment for sure.  This book made me cry in a couple of spots and that is a thumbs up for me if you have me weeping.
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