Before even beginning to read Julian Lee’s novel The House of the Trembling Leaves, the title provides poignant imagery with its suggested opposition: the sturdiness of a house to the fragility of leaves. This contrast between strong and weak is one that recurs in this poetic novel which details the friendship and travels of two women.
At the beginning novel, we are introduced to Lu See Teoh, a Malaysian, and her Tibetan maid servant Sum Sum. Both quickly leave Malaysia to go to England in pursuit of Lu’s desire to study and also to be reunited with her forbidden love, Adrian Woo. The long-standing conflict between the Teohs and Woos which make that love prohibited is the central concern of the early stages of the novel but its importance declines in light of the shocking and innovative storylines that develop consequently. The House of the Trembling Leaves is a novel that is filled with surprises and moments of epiphany as Lees carefully interweaves characters’ lives and the passing of time in a way that resembles the intricate lines of a leaf. Powerful tragedies of different kinds befall both female protagonists while in England and lead to their separation from each other. For the rest of the novel, the question of whether they will be reunited is constantly hanging in the background, driving the reader to continue reading.
The characterisation of Sum Sum is commendable. The Tibetan maid’s strength in the face of adversity and her humorous comebacks in all situations provides the reader with an easy way to connect to the story. As a maid, you see her self-sacrifice, her willingness to serve and her loyalty to and friendship with Lu which continues to endear her to the reader. At some points in the novel, Sum Sum’s story seems to take a backseat to that of Lu, but the switching between the two women’s tales, a split is established, gives the novel a broader perspective. Lu is another endearing character with an eager heart but I think her privileged position makes her less easy to relate to than Sum Sum.
Julian Lees covers some tough topics within The House of the Trembling Leaves, exploring the effects of sexual abuse, war, guerrilla activity and the effect of death and suffering on his characters’ psyches and behaviour. The seriousness of these topics makes their discussion in the novel interesting. In particular, Lees offers a compelling portrait of the psychology of fear and terror during the Japanese occupation and their impact on the locals that lived through the war.
The novel offers a broad brush narrative account, thus a great chunk of Lu See and Sum Sum’s lifetime and details are sometimes missed. In the early stages of the novel, day-to-day accounts of the two women’s lives and their intriguing; their funny interactions are a pleasure to read. However, The House of the Trembling Leaves soon turns into a story which spans weeks and years, and details are only occasionally filled in flashbacks. For me, this resulted in a loss of depth, particularly in terms of the novel’s handling of characters, and in some places can detract from the pleasure of involvement in their stories.
Despite this, The House of the Trembling Leaves is still a magical novel whose purpose seems to be to both intrigue and challenge the reader. It takes a look at the strongest, deepest kind of friendship and asks if the relationship can with withstand decades of separation. The only way to find out if it can is to read this elegant novel for yourself.