‘Amber Road’ tells the story of Victoria Khoo, a young Chinese woman in Singapore during the Japanese occupation in WWII. The story starts a few days before the war, when her only concern in the world is what dress to wear to a garden party. I don’t often read books set in the real world, and now I’ve read two in a row, both set in WWII. The book has lots of detail about the occupation, the war and the many different cultures living in Singapore, so if you enjoy books set that period I think you could enjoy this book.

Image from: randomhouse.com.au

The story starts off with an extract from George Khoo’s journal. Throughout the story, chapters will start with these extracts and give the reader a greater appreciation for the events in the war outside of Singapore. This first bit though, wasn’t particularly riveting, but it does give you an idea of the sort of detail Anderson put into the back stories of his character’s families.

After this, we are introduced to Victoria as she is getting ready to attend a garden party at Angsana Lodge, a house she some day hopes to call her own, by way of marrying Sebastian, the eldest son of the Boustead family. The first chapter is pretty much Victoria thinking about what to wear, how wonderful it would be to marry Sebastian, and how her sister Lavinia is an idiot for thinking Sebastian is engaged. It turns out, Lavinia is right, and the purpose of the garden party is to announce Sebastian’s engagement to Elizabeth Nightingale. Personally, I found the first couple of chapters very difficult to get through. I like detail in books, but that doesn’t mean I want to read a whole page about Victoria thinking which colour dress to wear.

A few short days later, the war starts. Here, I felt there was a missed opportunity. Victoria goes into town and finds bomb damage everywhere. We got lots of description of the damage, but none of what Victoria is actually thinking or feeling. She was so sure there wouldn’t be a war, and then she sees the evidence of it before her eyes, places she’s known since she was a girl blown up and… nothing. We get nothing. This whole section was also in an indirect style, with every twist and turn of the conversation covered indirectly, for a whole page. (Example, direct quotation would be: Victoria said, “I want to go into town”, indirect style would be: Victoria told her father that she wanted to go into town). I can’t recall ever seeing this for such a long and detailed conversation. That’s really a personal preference though, so if you don’t mind long, indirect conversations, ignore my complaints.

The strengths of the story are the detail about the war and what happens to the people in Singapore. The weaknesses for me were some odd choices throughout the book about which events were meaningful. The first one would be what I already mentioned about Victoria’s reaction to the start of the war. Without giving too much away, the next big thing was when her younger half brother arranged for someone in the house to… disappear. I felt this should have been a huge issue for the family to deal with, the younger brother informing to the Japanese. Nope, apparently it isn’t because Victoria barely registers it and no one even really talks about it, or worries about the little brother.

It took me a while to get into the story, but around halfway through I did find myself enjoying it, though again there would be little choices like those previously mentioned, or suddenly long pieces of indirect conversation that I found a bit jarring. Also, I liked pretty much every character more than Victoria. By the end, I still didn’t particularly care for her and felt that she was still making the same silly mistakes as in the beginning of the book.

So, overall… if you like books set in this period and you like a focus on the greater sweep of the war, I think you could enjoy it. I was indifferent to the main character, and there were some aspects of the writing style that didn’t appeal to me, however everyone has different preferences. If you like Anderson’s style, lots of detail in the back-stories, the events of the war and the culture, you could enjoy this book.

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