Shortlisted, 2017 Governor General's Award for Fiction
The Leung family leads a life of secluded luxury in Hong Kong. But in December 1941, the Empire of Japan invades the colony. The family is quickly dragged into a spiral of violence, repression, and starvation. To survive, they entomb themselves and their friends in the Leung mansion. But this is only a temporary reprieve, and the Leungs are forced to send their children away.
The youngest boy, Chung-Man, escapes with some of his siblings, and together they travel deep into the countryside to avoid the Japanese invaders. Thrown into a new world, Chung-Man befriends a young couple who yearn to break free of their rural life. But their friendship ends when the Japanese arrive, and Chung-Man is once again taken captive. Unwittingly and willingly, he enters a new cycle of violence and punishment until he finally breaks free from his captors and returns to Hong Kong.
Deeply scarred, Chung-Man drifts along respectfully and dutifully, enveloped by the unspoken vestiges of war. It is only as he leaves home once again — this time for university in America — that he finally glimpses a way to keep living with his troubled and divided self.
Written in restrained, yet beautiful and affecting prose, The Water Beetles is an engrossing story of adventure and survival. Based loosely on the diaries and stories of the author's father, this mesmerizing story captures the horror of war through the eyes of a child with unsettling and unerring grace.
"Twelve-year-old Chung-Man transports the reader from the halcyon days of upper-class life in pre-war Hong Kong into the brutality of the Japanese occupation where cruelty has no limits. Written in clean, elegant prose, The Water Beetles is a powerful and gripping account of a young boy’s coming of age during that most harrowing of times. A most impressive debut."
"Kaan is able to balance the bloodshed with beautiful imagery and detail."
"It is an understatement to say Kaan’s novel is an impressive debut. It immediately enters into the canon of coming-of-age stories, as powerful as any you can name."
"Kaan has succeeded in producing a work of lasting power. Introduced on these pages is a writer as skilled at crafting prose as he is at revealing the sufferings of war and lapsed time."
"Kaan has created a narrator who reveals his dramatic tale with such anguish and ironic restraint that truth-revealing consequences — the prickly truths of being inescapably human — are driven deeper into a reader’s heart. A work most deserving of serious attention."
"Michael Kaan’s spider-silken debut demands second read. [A] high-wire act of literary derring-do."