Book Review – THE HEART RADICAL by Boyd Anderson

The Heart Radical by Boyd AndersonThe Heart Radical Synopsis: 

Told primarily through the captivating voice of a young girl awakening to a world at war, The Heart Radical is the stunning new novel from the author of the bestselling Amber Road.

Esteemed human rights lawyer Su-Lin Tan barely recognises Professor Paris Thumboo when he delivers a history lecture in London. For the last time she saw him was in a crowded Malayan courtroom more than half a century ago, during the trial that would change her life …

It’s 1951 and Malaya is in the grip of ‘The Emergency’ between the government forces and communist rebels. Yet eight-year-old Su-Lin lives in relative ignorance of the chaos raging around her. 

That is until she shadows her beloved father, esteemed defence barrister K. C. Tan, as he embarks on a controversial new case – and into Su-Lin’s life walks war hero Dr Anna Thumboo, her son Paris and her lover, Toh Kei, the enigmatic leader of the jungle rebels.

For Anna and Toh Kei, the trial is a matter of life and death. For Su-Lin it’s the start of a journey of discovery – about love and sacrifice, about truth and lies, and about fighting for what you believe in, whatever the cost… (Random House Australia)


In addition to its very clever title (more on that later) what drew me to Boyd Anderson’s The Heart Radical was the altruistic premise and the opportunity to learn more about the history of a nearby region. I knew the conflicts and cultures involved in Malayan history were complex, but ashamedly little more.

The Heart Radical narrative framework is one of the more complex I have seen. For me complexity is not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately in this case I found Anderson’s execution fell a little short of ambition. The story patchwork consisted of multiple narrators reflecting on different times in the past, along with a character reading a letter written by a character reflecting on her past.

The narrative of Su-Lin Tan was one of the more successful in The Heart Radical, but even that was a little confusing at times as within the same reflective passage (chapter) she switched between her childhood and adult viewpoints. Her view of the world as a curious child was definitely my favourite as it served as the catalyst for much clever exploration of cultural differences and the duplicity of language(s). As clever as the wordplay was however, on occasion I found inconsistencies in the lens of childhood ignorance jarring.

One of the most confusing anglicised things of all for me was the law. I was not the only one to find it so, of course. After all, my father was required to go all the way to England to study it, or ‘read’ it, as they said. It took him five years to complete that reading, and every time I looked at all the shelves lined with law books in his office I thought I understood why. English law was apparently a mystery so confusing it required someone who wore a wig and could expound arcane concepts in Latin, and even I knew Latin was a language hardly anyone else in the world had the first idea about.

I found Su-Lin as a child immensely more likeable than her adult self. And that brings me to the adult narrative between Su-Lin and Paris Thumboo which held much potential but ultimately contributed little. This, like several tangents within this novel, added length rather than the intended depth. A stronger editorial hand could have elevated this novel to greater heights.

Despite some weaknesses in execution The Heart Radical contains many successes for Anderson. The courage of his character Dr Anna Thumboo is as moving as the beautifully realised relationship between father and daughter, K C Tan and Su-Lin is endearing. The passages relaying the events of The Trial were some of the sharpest and most compelling within the novel.

Having some knowledge of the Chinese language, I particularly enjoyed the discussions about the construction of Chinese characters and hence the multiple levels of meaning, or the moral, within this novel’s title.


In The Heart Radical Boyd Anderson delivers on the altruistic premise which first attracted me to it. With a wonderful eye for detail he evokes the collision of cultures and leaves readers with a much greater appreciation of the complex and tumultuous history of the region. But, more poignantly, Anderson reminds us that no matter how complicated we humans make our lives by distinction of race or religion, when all is said and done, the same underlying instincts of love and sense of belonging drive us all.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 3.5 / 5

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BOOK DETAILS: The Heart Radical by Boyd Anderson ( Booktopia | Kobobooks | Amazon )

Genre: Historical, Drama, Romance, Mystery

The review counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge.

Author Information: Boyd Anderson spent several years as a creative director in advertising, winning many awards in New York, Cannes, London, Los Angeles and Sydney. Boyd now writes historical fiction. The Heart Radical is his fifth novel, following Amber Road, Children of the DustLudo and Errol, Fidel and the Cuban Rebel Girls. He lives in Sydney.

– Check out Boyd Anderson’s website

– Read a free chapter of The Heart Radical

Other reviews of The Heart Radical : Book’d Out ; All The Books I Can Read ; The Newtown Review of Books ; Write Note Reviews

* My receiving a paperback copy of this title from Bantam, Random House Australia for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.