Agnes Hussein is 17. She is one of the last descendants of the last sultan of Singapore and she lives with her elderly extended family in the crumbling Kampong Glam Palace. Her parents and older brother died in the flu epidemic many years ago and she is left with her grandmother, Nei-Nei Down; British Grandfather; her Uncle Chachi, who is actually her great uncle and the heir to the palace; an aged servant; and a trio of odd young male boarders. It is only the rent that these students pay combined with British Grandfather's pension from the army that keeps the Hussein family in the slowly disintegrating palace at all. As the youngest, most able-bodied member of the family, Aggie feels as if she must take on responsibility for the old people, coming up with the idea of a retail job to help keep them afloat. Even as Aggie is trying to find a way to help bring in some money to patch the palace, one of the boarders is concocting his own dangerous plot that will change the lives of all the residents of Kampong Glam Palace but especially of the naïve and sweet Aggie who will experience love and betrayal for the first time as a result.
The Singapore setting is well done and carefully drawn. The time of the book is less well depicted with little devoted to ensuring that the reader always feels immersed in the 1920s instead of the present. The history of the time was so rich, especially in Asia, and yet the novel really just offers a glancing nod towards the way in which the world around them was changing and the growing tensions in the British held colony. The characters themselves are generally appealing and entertaining but a little thin and the pacing is slow without much narrative tension. Some of this lack of tension is because the story is told from Aggie's point of view and her understanding of her family's tenuous position is not only incomplete but it is almost non-existent. She knows that their financial straits mirror the ruin of the palace but has no concept of what that really means for the future, leaving her open and susceptible to outside forces. The ending of the novel introduces a new character entirely and then wraps up abruptly after a cursory couple of pages. A quick read, this coming of age novel is not quite as fully rounded as might be hoped but it is, despite that, a nice and easy read.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.