Book Review: Shadows Beneath the Fronds

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Having Malaysia as the topic and setting for his (just published) second novel, and with two more in the pipeline, it is with some surprise that I hear Irish-born Paul Callan confess that, before meeting his Malaysian wife in London, he had never even heard of the country.

“I didn’t even know where it was,” he remembers, “but the moment I arrived, I fell in love with it.” It is serendipitous, then, that he also fell in love with the woman who brought him, and the subsequent 20-odd years since have seen the couple jetting back and forth between homes in KL and the UK.

“I just love Malaysians,” he says with a self-deprecating shrug, “especially those I meet in the rural places. The people are so warm and so friendly.” Despite the immediate love for this new country, writing about it was not the first thing on his mind, although writing itself had been for as long as he can remember.

The love affair with words took root when Paul was nine years old and asked to write a story at school. “I came up with a tale about a tree that could talk to the other trees, and the teachers were so impressed!” he beams. His early attempt at becoming a writer some years later failed to take off, however, due to what he describes as his “hedonistic twenties”: “I was just constantly distracted,” he says, “and ended up setting up my own business instead.”

It was a worthy venture as the business thrived, and it was only once Paul retired that his thoughts returned to that once burning dream: to be a published author. “I was holidaying in Pangkor Laut,” he explains, “and I was reading a brochure that explained how the local tin miners were encouraged to develop opium addictions, thus keeping them under the control of their leaders. It just sparked something. I wanted to research it, and then I wanted to write about it.”

This small spark gained momentum the more he read, and it eventually led to Paul’s successful debut novel, The Dulang Washer. While in the midst of writing this first book (subsequently published in July 2011), Paul was already looking ahead to his second novel, which closely followed its predecessor and was unleashed on the literary world back in May 2012. Book number two, titled Shadows Beneath the Fronds, is once again set in historical Malaysia and concerns the plight of the lower classes.

“In The Dulang Washer, I had talked about the history of the Chinese coming to Malaysia,” explains Paul, “so in the second book I wanted to write something for the Tamils. They were the ones who worked on the palm plantations which really helped this country grow; I wanted to get them some recognition.”

Shadows Beneath the Fronds is set in the 1970s, when plantations were being subdivided and Tamil estate workers were forced from their homes and livelihoods to a life of squalor in settlements. To develop the idea into a fully fleshed book, Paul spent months reading and researching, talking to planter families, and visiting plantations and squatter settlements to ensure that he could write with confidence and accuracy.

The attention to detail paid off and has ensured that Paul’s characters are carefully woven, allowing readers to hear and empathise with them and their plight. “The characters become my life when I write. I am with them all day every day,” he explains. “I actually cried when I finished the first draft; it is like the end of a love affair.”


But there is no time to lament the loss of his Shadows characters, as Paul is already chipping away at his third novel, while a fourth bubbles on the back burner. Both of will be set in this region.

“It is my way of giving something back to the country,” he says, “I love Malaysia immensely.” He further satisfies his philanthropic urge by visiting schools and inspiring the youngsters he meets to be creative. “After a trip to a school in Shah Alam, I came across a blog written by one of the students,” he remembers. “They had written, ‘Since I met Paul Callan, I have decided I wanted to be a writer.’” He smiles happily at the thought; “something like that is so much more fulfilling than writing, because that is what I love: I love making people happy.”

Shadows Beneath the Fronds is out now. Both this and his debut The Dulang Washer are available in local bookstores nationwide.

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Source: The Expat August 2012
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