Think on ink: ‘The Moonlight Palace’
Caelin Miltko | Tuesday, October 14, 2014
In Liz Rosenberg’s novel “The Moonlight Palace,” she explores what life was like in 1920s Singapore. Her protagonist, seventeen-year-old Agnes, is the descendant of Sultan Hussein, the man who “sold” Singapore to Britain. She grows up in a palace where she is raised by her great-uncle (the last male heir of the Hussein line) and her great-grandparents, a Chinese woman and British colonel.
For Agnes’ family, the 1920s are a time of declining prosperity. The deal Sultan Hussein made with the British government is no longer valid, and they no longer hold any sort of power. They live off the military pension of “British Grandfather” and the income they get from male boarders.
The book is framed as a coming-of-age passage for Agnes. Adults have protected her as the last child of this aristocratic family all her life. They attempt to keep the truth of their financial strife from her and hide the changing political issues at hand.
This bubble they’ve created for Agnes bursts when one of their boarders attempts to blow up their palace in an act of terrorism against the colonial power of Britain. Agnes is horrified, unable to entirely understand the boy’s motivations and equally unable to understand what the consequences will be for her and her family.
Still attempting to protect her, the “British Grandfather” strikes a deal with the colonial powers to save the life of the would-be suicide bomber’s sidekick. This deal puts at stake the palace Agnes has grown up in.
The palace is an important pseudo-character in Agnes’ story. She loves it as much as she loves any member of her family, and its loss would be detrimental to her. She sees it as a physical representation of her family and her ancestral past.
It is interesting that this symbol of her personal history is such a complicated symbol of colonialism in Singapore. Her family cannot afford to lose the palace, as it is the last thing they have left from their days as members of the ruling class . They no longer have power and are being forced to bow to the wishes of the militaristic powers now taking over their country. Still, for Agnes and her family, the ownership of the palace seems to reaffirm their place in life.
Part of their fear of losing the palace is tied up in a fear of not knowing what they will do in the future. The palace is falling apart and at some point, they discuss moving out to find a more modern place. Agnes, of course, objects strongly — she is as attached to the palace being a symbol of her family’s past as she is to the heroic perception she has been given of her aristocratic ancestors.
The interesting part about Agnes’ coming-of-age story is that, in the end, she is not much more aware of the issues facing her country. Sure, she comes to terms with the need to let go of the past (and the palace, in order to preserve it), but Rosenberg leaves us no real sense of where Agnes and her family will go from there.
Regardless, the final tone of the story is hopeful. Agnes looks forward to the changing times in Singapore and her place there. She has her family and, for now, it seems as though her past and her palace will not be destroyed.
In reference to my personal perceptions of the 1920s, this uncertainty leads me back to my romanticized notions of what it might have been like to live in that time. I always seem to forget that the end of the 1920s were not as golden as the beginning may have seemed. They were a time of extreme change, when people were realizing the benefits of an industrialized world and choosing to take advantage of them.
“The Moonlight Palace” brings me back to that very concept. Underneath Agnes’ story is that current of change. It’s not clear what that change will bring, but it is clear that it must be accepted and embraced.