Lies that Blind: A Novel of Late 18th Century Penang by E.S. Alexander
Lies That Blind is eighteenth century biographical fiction set in the East Indies, based on a true story.
Narrated by Jim Lloyd, a young aspiring journalist, the story is set around the life of Captain Francis Light. He was a British pioneer who created the settlement of George Town on the Malay island of Penang. He also renamed the island the Prince of Wales Island.
In the late 1700s the East Indies were a popular trading area, particularly for spices, and there was much rivalry from European nations over the control of trade. The Dutch East India Company, the British East India Company, the Portuguese and the French all vied for power. At the time, Penang Island was host to a great mix of people; many had fled from their own oppressive leaders. Malays, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Burmans and Siamese had all found their way to the island which, despite Light’s leadership, became a lawless place. Pirates prowled the coast, and there were frequent trade embargoes caused by breakdowns in negotiations with the local sultan.
It’s here that Jim Lloyd plans to make something of his life and hopes, thus, to impress his overbearing father. Taking a job as Light’s clerical assistant, Jim’s primary plan is to write Light’s biography. However, it soon becomes apparent that Light’s visions for George Town and reality are far apart. Jim’s naïveté sees him stumbling along believing much of what he is told and what he sees, until he grows into this experience and finds some much needed direction for his life.
This is a medium-paced story; the author’s research shines through and it paints a good picture of the era and the people. It interested me enough to seek out a map to check out some of the places mentioned in the story and it brought back to mind some of my history lessons about the East Indies. This is the second book that I have recently read with the Dutch East Indies as a theme; it certainly filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge for that part of the world.
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Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd jeopardises his future in ways he never could have imagined. He risks his wealthy father’s wrath to ride the coat-tails of Captain Francis Light, an adventurer governing the East India Company’s new trading settlement on Penang. Once arrived on the island, Jim—as Light’s assistant—hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But the naïve young man soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: Pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him and Light perilously close to infamy: a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman.