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Books set in Penang: novels to transport you to Penang Island

Books set in Penang: novels to transport you to Penang Island

Books are the perfect escapism, enabling the reader to be transported to a different land. I especially love reading novels that are set in a destination I’ve travelled, or even better, whilst I’m actually there. When a novel is set in a destination that you’ve personally connected with, the story grips you that little bit tighter.

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So if you’re looking for a books set in Penang for your up-coming-trip to the island, or maybe you want to continue your fascination with the island after a visit through literature, then you’ve come to the right place.

The following books set in Penang have been read by either Jenny or Jason (the writers of this Penang blog that you’re reading) or, more often that not, both of us.

Considering the deep-rooted history of Penang, it probably comes as no surprise to you that the following suggested novels focus on a time in history. So not only will they transport you to the destination of Penang, but will also to a place in time.

1. The Gift of Rain

by Tan Twan Eng
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The Gift of Rain book cover
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The Gift of Rain: by Tan Twan Eng (Canons)
  • Eng, Tan Twan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 512 Pages – 07/07/2022 (Publication Date) – Canongate Canons (Publisher)

This debut novel by Tan Twan Eng, set on Penang Island, follows Phillip Hutton, a Chinese-English teenager, during the build-up and subsequent invasion by Japanese forces in the Second World War. 

When a mysterious Japanese martial artist arrives in Phillip’s life and begins teaching him aikido, he starts learning more about himself, the impending war, and his own place on the island. What begins as a master/pupil relationship gradually changes and it soon becomes clear to Phillip that he must make a choice between the different forces acting upon his life.

The novel is fascinating on so many levels, partly as a historical piece of work, discussing the role of English, Chinese, and Japanese communities on the evolution of Penang before WWII. The mixed heritage of the protagonist also gives the reader a perspective on the makeup of Penang’s population and how the groups interact with each other.

It’s a beautifully written book which is a pleasure to read, but it’ll also give you an understanding of the horrific experience the Penang population endured during the Second World War, when the retreating British elite left them defenceless against the brutal Japanese forces. Despite this ever-present thread of trauma and sadness, the novel is also about friendship, family, duty, and memory, all set against the backdrop of the beautiful island of Penang.

2. The Pearl of Penang

by Clare Flynn 
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The Pearl of Penang: 1 (The Penang Series)
  • Flynn, Clare (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages – 11/15/2023 (Publication Date) – Storm Publishing (Publisher)

On the brink of WW2, British-born Evie accepts a marriage proposal from a widower based in Penang who she met 15 years ago. This is her escape ticket from the lonely doldrums of Hampshire working as a companion. From stepping off the boat to Penang, not only does Evie have to acclimatise to the suffocating humidity, but she has to navigate the waters of expat gossip as well as the heart of a cold and distant husband.

This historical novel has excellent pace and weaves an interesting background to the rubber plantations of Penang as well as the mistakes of the British military on the run up to the Japanese invasion of, what was then called, Malaya.

The lead character takes us to Penang Hill, temples of George Town, beaches of Batu Ferringhi, as well as the Penang Club and The E&O, which are both still in operation today.

This is the first book in a four part historical novel series. So if you love this read, be sure to dive into the next one, Prisoner from Penang, which picks up towards the end of the book and follows the story of Evie’s best friend, Mary. Although Book Two is set mostly in the POW camps of Indonesia with only the last few chapters set in Penang, when the lead character returns home, and why it isn’t included in this list of books set in Penang.

3. A Painter in Penang

by Clare Flynn 
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A Painter in Penang: 3 (The Penang Series)
  • Flynn, Clare (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 332 Pages – 11/15/2023 (Publication Date) – Storm Publishing (Publisher)

A Painter in Penang, is Clare Flynn’s third novel from her Penang Series (the second novel is set mostly at Indonesian POW camps). We have now moved on a few years to 1948 where the focus is on Evie’s step-daughter, Jasmine. Sixteen-year-old Jasmine is desperately unhappy at her strict convent school in Kenya and longs to return to Penang Island where she was born and lived until the Japanese invasion.

An expulsion from school is the catalyst for her parents to realise that Penang is perhaps the place where she needs to be, and a long boat ride via India and Sri Lanka returns Jasmine to her island home to live under the care of her mum’s best friend, and her old school teacher, Mary.

Jasmine quickly falls back in love with the island and throws herself into her love of art, capturing the beauty of both the landscape and its people in her sketchpad, whilst simultaneously trying to ignore persuasive romantic interests.

However, the war has changed Penang and it has far from returned to the safe haven that it once was. There is growing unrest between the various nationalities that call Malaya home, which leads to the ‘Malayan Emergency’ (also known at the ‘Anti–British National Liberation War’) a guerrilla war between communist pro-independence fighters of the Malayan National Liberation Army and the military forces of the Federation of Malaya, British Empire and Commonwealth. But between the political tensions, murders, and unearthing truths about her dead father, Jasmine finds her art as the perfect release of worries.

Another captivating page-turner from Clare Flynn that I thoroughly enjoyed, again learning more about Penang’s history that is little spoken of.

The final book in The Penang Series is Jasmine in Paris. Whilst the pull of Penang is strong for the lead character, this fourth book is mostly set in Paris as we learn of Jasmine’s first year as an art student. The story weaves around expected Parisian clichés that the reader needs to embrace, but it’s the conveyed contrast with life in the tropics that’s perhaps most interesting. Penang features very little in this final book, but it’s a beautiful story and a worthwhile read to complete the series. Have the tissues at the ready.