Lies that Blind: A Novel of Late 18th Century Penang

Written by E. S. Alexander
Review by Waheed Rabbani

1788 Calcutta, India: Jim, a nineteen-year-old Englishman, is a writer at the East India Company’s headquarters. Bored from mindless clerical activities, he aspires for higher laurels, perhaps becoming the Governor-General. He learns that Superintendent Light of Penang needs an assistant. Jim immediately applies to Light, glorifying his journalistic abilities, and is accepted. In Penang, Jim learns that the island was leased by Light from the owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, using dubious tactics. Jim is intrigued by Penang and its multicultural inhabitants and, although admonished by Light, makes friends with the native people. He also takes on tutoring children and gets attached to Light’s youngest son. The island prospers, attracting traders and pirates to its duty-free port. Jim wonders how Light can administer the island without charging taxes. Eventually, the false promises to the Sultan become problematic and raise the potential for a war that Light and Jim have to address.

E. S. Alexander has penned her debut historical novel on the formation of Penang, following in-depth research and using primary sources that enhance the narrative. Furthermore, the intimate details transport readers to the settings, and it’s no surprise to learn that Ms. Alexander has been a resident of Malaysia since 2017. The use of fictional Jim’s first-person point of view to narrate the story of the real-life Francis Light is well handled, and it adds another level of familiarity with the well-developed main characters. Although some of Jim’s and Light’s actions require suspension of disbelief, the narrative is engaging. The impact of British colonialism on the lives of Malays and members of other nationalities is enlightening and educational, particularly to those unfamiliar with the history of Penang. The politics within the East India Company that affected the lives of its officials and their families split between Britain and the far-off lands are well presented. Highly recommended.