The Forgotten Promise: Paula Greenlees

Published by Penguin, 2022, 512 pages.

Two girls grow up together in 1920s British Malaya: Ella, the daughter of the English owner of a tin mine and his Malayan wife, and Noor, the daughter of the family’s cook. The girls are inseparable, even though Ella’s mother does not seem to approve. The girls swear a blood oath to be sisters forever.

However, things change. Melody, an American girl whom Ella meets in school, takes Noor’s place, and Ella does not have much time for her old friend anymore. The girls grow up, becoming women on different sides of the class divide. Ella marries a British man, Johnnie, and inherits the tin mine. Noor now works as their cook.

It is 1941, and the Second World War is raging in Europe. There are rumours of an imminent Japanese invasion of Malaya. Most people think that if the Japanese did invade, the British would be able to fight them off. In the meantime, there is an outbreak of diphtheria in the region, and Ella’s seven-year-old daughter Grace comes down with it. Grace is sent to a hospital. Keeping her at home would put Grace’s baby brother Toby in danger.

Ella worries about Grace but is not allowed to see her. Melody comes to visit and persuades Ella to accompany her to her beach house. Ella agrees and takes Toby with her. Then the Japanese invade, sweeping through Malaya. Ella cannot return to her husband and daughter. Her only option is to leave for England and stay with Johnnie’s parents, hoping that Johnnie and Grace can join them there.

But this does not happen. Although Johnnie has managed to bring Grace home, he comes down with diphtheria himself and cannot leave. The Japanese reach the tin mine, and soon it is too late for Johnnie and Grace to get away. Before Johnnie is taken away by the Japanese, he entrusts his daughter to Noor.

Noor was planning to escape into the jungle to be with her cousin Omar, who is part of the resistance against the Japanese. But now that she is entrusted with Grace, she thinks that it would be too risky. So she stays on as a cook, working for the Japanese who have taken over the mine and the house. She passes Grace off as her young nephew.

The story follows the two women as they try and survive in difficult circumstances. Noor is informing on the Japanese to Omar, while trying to keep herself and Grace safe. Ella is having to adjust to life in Britain: a culture that is foreign to her and where, unlike in Malaya, she has to do everything for herself. Although her parents-in-law are supportive, she is an Asian in a Britain that looks on foreigners with distrust. And all her attempts to find out what has happened to her family lead nowhere.

Eventually the war ends, the Japanese are defeated, and Ella is finally able to go back to Malaya. But what will she find there? Has Johnnie managed to survive? Will her daughter ever forgive her for abandoning her? And will Ella be able to revive her friendship with Noor?

This book gives a real sense of what it must have been like in Malaya and Britain during the Second World War. I found the parts of the story set in Malaya absorbing: I have read a lot about Britain during this period—although seldom from the point of view of an Asian—but much less about Malaya. Paula Greenlees writes about how the Malayans dealt with the Japanese invasion. Some, like Omar, allied with the British, believing that if the British could help the Malayans drive out the Japanese, the Malayans could then negotiate for their independence. Others thought differently: if the Japanese expelled the British, Japan would grant the country independence.

The descriptions of Malaya are vivid: you can almost hear the nightjars and feel the heat and humidity. Greenlees describes the electrical storm before the rain: “the dip in the heat, the overwhelming humidity followed by a picking up of the wind that invaded the villa like an unwelcome guest, banging doors and rustling curtains, finally followed by the sudden downpour that could last for weeks.”

This is an engaging story about two characters I cared about, especially Noor. I also have a personal interest in Malaya during this period. My uncle was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and reading this made me think of what he must have gone through. The Broken Promise brings this period to life.

Buy from UK

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