Jonathan is a 10-year-old boy in Brunei. He lives with his father and brother Aaron and sister Jen. His mother has gone away, ostensibly for health reasons, and his older brother Michael left to join a rock band. When the book starts, Jonathan’s uncle, Ah Peh, calls to tell him his grandfather’s death.
The family leave for Ah Peh’s house where the funeral is going to take place. Jonathan is desperate to speak to his mother, to find out when—or if—she is coming back. He doesn’t believe she is sick but knows that she was deeply unhappy. He keeps missing her calls, and his father won’t tell him anything. Just before they leave for the funeral, he finds out that she will be going to Dubai the next day and will not be able to call from there.
In Ah Peh’s house, his cousin Kevin—a spoiled, overfed child his age—tells him that he is in touch with Michael, who speaks regularly to his mother. Jonathan tries to get Kevin to call Michael but the number has changed. Looking through Michael’s Facebook account, the boys figure out that he will be at the Friendly Garden Pool Centre in Badir, a nearby town, at 1:30 pm the next day.
The day of the funeral, a truck arrives to deliver the coffin. The address on the side of the truck is a place in Badir. Fed up at being shut out by his father and blamed for everything and determined to speak to his mother, Jonathan stows away in the truck, hoping to meet his brother. But it’s not that simple: there are two more coffins to deliver.
That’s how his journey begins. Jonathan leaves the truck at an unknown place and wanders into a derelict house filled with what seem to be voodoo dolls. He is rescued from feral dogs by a gang of poklans (Brunei punks) who make him buy glue for them to sniff, and is helped by Mohidin, a rather weird shopkeeper.
Lim uses Jonathan’s journey to give the reader a glimpse into the real Brunei, which I found fascinating. All I knew about the country was the wealth, both of its ruler, the Sultan, and the kingdom itself.
I also loved KH Lim’s ability to capture the details of a scene. Jonathan knows his grandfather’s shoes are Italian because the soles were emblazoned with “Armany” and “Definitely Made in Italy”. Lim describes an old guard on a plastic chair, snoozing in front of a shop next to an ice-cream machine, which “sat next to him like a mechanical grandchild desperate for attention, its orange, green and pink buttons so bright with deluded optimism and so close to being able to distract one away from the rust marks and cobwebs that had gathered around the rest of its neglected body.”
This book is heart-breaking and funny, and you root for Jonathan as you watch him mature and become more assertive about what he wants, earning a grudging respect from those around him.