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Book Review


By John Dodd

Publisher: Monsoon Books, 336 pages

ISBN: 978-9810575694

IT’S such a shame that A Company of Planters failed to plant any sentiment in this reviewer. I’ve recently embarked on a new writing project, and having enjoyed memoirs such as Tales From The South China Seas by Charles Allen and Michael Mason, I was expecting a rollicking good read about young and old English planters who worked and settled in pre-independence Malaya.

John Dodd was a young, and eager planter who came to Malaya in 1950s. His adventures and musings were captured in his diary, and letters to family and from friends provide the reader a picture of an engaging past.

Dodd, like his other planter friends, sought more than just increasing rubber output; there was time to drink, chase women and observe the local culture. Being a planter then was not all one romantic adventure, though – they had to cope with Communists living in the jungles, strikes, riots, etc.

All in all, the book promised the reviewer a glimpse of her nation when it was a mere “baby”, but somehow failed to enrapture her.

Writing a memoir is not easy. There’s the argument that perhaps one’s nostalgia and memory of a time long gone isn’t that precious to a reader and historian.

Like fiction, memoirs need to tell a story. True, memoirs are about facts, or rather the writer’s version of the truth, but at the end of the day, to get a reader to be hooked on a writer’s history, there must be a story.

Perhaps it is because the book is written in diary form and published letters. If the initial intention is to grab the reader into the writer’s world, somehow the format of Planters disengages the reader.

What makes a great memoir? Allow me to quote fellow writer and editor, Eric Forbes, “A successful memoir brings about an intimacy or affinity between two perfect strangers: the reader and the memoirist.” Planters did not have that intimacy.

For sure, the tales about getting drunk, local “comfort women” and Dodd’s eye on local and expatriate culture were interesting. They were funny, intriguing and sharp. But after a while, everything seemed repetitive.

A superb diarist or memoirist would be Anais Nin. Her infamous diaries may seem self-indulgent and rather obsessed with self-analysis and psychiatric analyses, but they truly pinned down the essence of 1940s Paris and America.

She was a writer who saw herself as a subject that needed to be deconstructed and understood, and in between segments of her trying to understand her relationships with the men around her, she would also write about discourses about war, politics, culture, sex, nothing was taboo.

The reader wants to be there with her, and experience it all. Likewise with Charles Allen’s Tales From The South China Seas.

A grand social history in print, Allen takes the reader back into an exotic and dangerous time of British Governors and expatriates, living in the region. There are laugh-out loud moments with surprised tigers in jungles and romantic romps in sweltering heat. It is a book the reader will read again and again.

Mind you, Dodd’s book is not a total write-off. He has a keen eye, and isn’t a condescending writer. His memoir would have benefited greatly from the energy of an editor who would have turned the book into a must-read.