A Malaysian Restaurant In London
Author: Tunku Halim
Publisher: Fixi Novo
Malaysian food is the best food. It’s a fact that simply cannot be denied.
Our local cuisine, whether it is flavourful, spicy or just plain delicious, has brought smiles to faces and satisfaction to stomachs for as long as we can all remember. Life without our sambal belacan or banana leaf rice would be unpleasant indeed!
But imagine a Malaysian dish so wonderful that it seems to be able to cure the sick. A dish which, when eaten, causes the lame to walk and the poor-sighted to see. Such is the dish called “Hunger Pangs” that is at the heart of Tunku Halim’s latest novel, A Malaysian Restaurant In London.
The novel is perhaps the literary equivalent of afternoon tea time: a savoury yet easily digestible treat that ultimately proves to be quite satisfying.
The titular restaurant is opened by university student Kenny and his two brothers. Kenny’s Irish friend Trevor is called in to help as a waiter, and he soon falls in love with Faizah, the shy and enigmatic junior chef.
Running a restaurant turns out to be too much to handle, however, and the gang soon finds itself on the brink of closure. As a last ditch attempt to stave off that fate, Faizah cooks her Hunger Pangs, an odd dish that soon becomes popular after it seems to be able to cure the sick.
As word of the mysterious dish spreads, however, things become complicated. Mysterious men turn up to look into the restaurant, and it quickly becomes apparent there is more to Faizah than meets the eye. And what does all this have to do with the disappearance of a child in the Malaysian jungle years ago?
What follows is a haunting tale that takes place over 30 years, spanning the globe from London and Seville, to Malaysia.
Halim is the author of several short collections, including 7 Days To Midnight (2013) and the bestselling Horror Stories (2014) which seems to have taken up permanent residence on local bestseller lists.
He has written several novels, such as Dark Demon Rising (1997), Vermilion Eye (2000), and Last Breath (2014), and has also penned non-fiction books such as A Children’s History Of Malaysia (2013).
While he has a reputation for being a horror author (though he’s said he prefers “dark fantasy” to "horror" to describe his work), his latest offering is definitely not in that genre.
Indeed, it seems to be a rojak-like mixture of character drama and urban fantasy, lightly peppered with elements of thrillers and the supernatural.
And just like rojak, all these disparate ingredients end up blending rather well. Halim crafts a gripping and believable tale of three individuals caught up in events far beyond their control. Reading how Kenny, Trevor and Faizah react to forces they cannot comprehend is enjoyable, and sometimes heartbreaking as well.
The book also comes with illustrations by an artist called Chee, which are nice, although I don’t think they add much to the story.
Malaysian Restaurant switches perspectives a lot, leaping into first and third-person when it pleases. Most of it, however, is narrated by Kenny or Trevor.
Honestly, though, these two are not very interesting and have personalities that seem rather interchangeable to me. It is the mysterious Faizah who is the novel’s best character, one that truly intrigues.
Halim’s plot moves quickly and effectively builds up a suspenseful, almost surreal atmosphere. The opening chapters, set in a Malaysian village, are genuinely tense, while the middle section detailing the effects of Hunger Pangs are certainly enjoyable.
While some of the dialogue can be a little over-the-top (Faizah’s lines during an action-packed climax is the main offender!), the novel generally reads well and will definitely keep readers engrossed.
The only issue I have with it is how vague it can be sometimes. Much is left unexplained: it would have been nice, for example, to have learned more about the circumstances of Faizah’s life that led to the events of the story.
And we know frustratingly little about the villains. On the one hand, it is nice that Halim keeps them mysterious – it does add to the suspense. But giving the reader such scarce information also makes them appear generic and one-dimensional, as if they were introduced merely to add conflict and little else.
All in all, though, A Malaysian Restaurant In London was quite an absorbing read: a slow-boiler story of love, fate and healing. A moving tale with a gripping central character, which posits that even though physical afflictions can hurt, ultimately it is the emotional wounds that others leave in our memories that affect us most of all.