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The Great Reclamation Reader’s Guide

By Rachel Heng

The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Great Reclamation is a sweeping novel made up of many different elements. It’s a love story, a historical drama, a coming of age, and the story of a “chosen one.” It explores tensions between loyalty and morality, love and ambition, and the ways that our past experiences play a psychological role in influencing our futures. Which elements spoke to you most? Can you identify with any of those tensions?

2. Ah Boon is a person who wants to be good, and wants to do good, but isn’t always sure what that means. Consider all the different ways he tries to “be good” to his family, to Siok Mei, to his community, and to himself, and how those impulses are sometimes at odds. What do you think the book is ultimately showing about these kinds of good intentions?

3. Ah Boon and Siok Mei meet when they are schoolchildren in the kampong, and their lives intertwine across decades. What is special about their bond? Do you see it as mutual? What are the complicating factors? When they are apart, is their separation because of their feelings for each other, or their obligations to others? Are they making choices based on their own needs or the needs of others?

4. The love story between Ah Boon and Siok Mei is full of longing, but it also offers a lens through which to view politics and nationalism and history. Why does Siok Mei believe she has to choose between her political beliefs and Ah Boon? What does Eng Soon offer her that Ah Boon cannot? Why does she think choosing a life with Ah Boon would weaken her dedication to her political causes? Do you think different political beliefs make people fundamentally incompatible?

5. There is a tradition of books about a “chosen one,” from beloved young adult novels like Harry Potter or The Golden Compass to classic fiction like War and Peace. In what ways is Ah Boon a kind of “chosen one” and how does that role complicate the choices he faces and sacrifices he must make? Does it shape how he thinks about his own responsibilities to his family on one hand, and the community or the country on the other?

6. What influence does Ah Boon’s father have on his choices later in life, and how does it compare to the ways that Siok Mei is influenced by the choices and fates of her parents? What is the novel saying more broadly about how historical events and trauma move through generations?

7. The Great Reclamation shows the enormous efforts that a nation may go to in trying to harness or control nature—in this case creating buildable land where once stood water. But as the events of the novel demonstrate, there are environmental consequences. What are the consequences as experienced by Ah Boon and the kampong? Consider modern-day examples of this kind of tug-of-war between modernity and nature, between progress and the health of the earth.

8. The Gah Men are focused on advancing Singapore as a nation, even at the cost of traditional ways of life. Consider Ah Boon’s mother and uncle, as well as Swee Hong, the owner of the kampong provisions store. What are the human costs of industrialization and modern nationhood in Singapore? Do you think the Gah Men were doing the right thing overall? Every place, every generation, confronts choices and changes that will be better for some than for others. How do the different characters reckon with these choices?

9. At his job at the community center, Ah Boon meets Natalie, who offers him a very different kind of love than Siok Mei. What does Ah Boon get from each of these strong women? What does Natalie give him that Siok Mei can’t, and vice versa? Which woman did you feel he belonged with and why?

10. As a gentle seven-year-old, Ah Boon discovers mysterious vanishing islands whose waters teem with fish. What do these magical islands represent to Ah Boon and his community over the course of the novel? How did you come to think about them—as a force for good or bad? How would Ah Boon’s life have been different if he had not found them?

11. When they are children in the kampong, Siok Mei makes Ah Boon promise never to leave her. In what ways does Ah Boon uphold that promise? In what ways does he fall short? What do you think about what happens to Ah Boon and Siok Mei at the end of the novel? Were you surprised by the choices they each made? Did you want them to get together in the end?

12. The novel’s epigraph suggests that Singaporean leaders believed that constant progress was best for the nation and that the past could be built over with new ideas and new technologies. When you look back on the story of Ah Boon, in what ways was he able to leave the past behind? In what ways was he mired in the past? Do you think it’s possible to truly leave history behind us?

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