The story centres on Ah Hock, who at the start of the novel is a not particularly attractive older man who is unable to work due to an injury he received in prison while serving a sentence for murder. His case attracts some notoriety, and a wealthy young idealistic graduate, Su-Min, decides that Hock's story can make her famous, as well as exposing the corruption and inequality in Malaysian society.
Hock tells his story to her, while gleaning nuggets of information from her about Su-Min's own, alien, life. Hock's life has been one of regular movement as he or his family have looked for work or shelter. His one experience of stability, when his mother and him work a small plot of land and grow food and breed fish for the market, is ruined as eventually the annual floods become to much and swallow the land. Dark murmurings about "climate change" are heard from the local villagers. Hock looks back on this teenage experience of intense labour with pleasure, remembering acting out the fantasies of his idols. But it's also the point he learns his mother isn't all powerful anymore, and there's a poignant story of him getting her a hearing aid via his friend Keong, who gets it with money from crime.
Hock, and many of those he lives and works with aren't, to paraphrase Marx living in circumstances of their own choosing. Their industries are made or broken on the whims of the international capitalist markets. The fishing community Hock is part of finds their prospects rise as newly middle class communities look for local seafood, but simultaneously the water is poisoned by pollution and plastic. As Hock muses:
Some politician in America decides that they can't buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly ten factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking planet so they ban the use of pal oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees. Life continues, but you feel it slipping quietly away, and you worry that it'll never return. And because of that fear, you feel caught in a suspended state. On the outside, life seems normal, but inside it's drawn to a standstill.It's the fear that ultimately leads to the incident that means that Hock ends up in prison. His friend Keong has followed the path from small time criminal to minor gangster in charge of getting slave labour for unscrupulous businessmen. The victims are refugees and the dispossessed, many from Rohingya, but Keong sees them only as workers suitable, or more likely unsuitable, for profitable labour.
Suddenly the workers that Hock manages can't work due to Cholera, and the enterprise that he manages, a fish farm that needs careful maintenance is threatened with collapse. Hock desperately reaches out to Keong for replacement labour to save the farm, and his own livelihood. Hock faces the risk of losing everything - his home, life and partner, but this time in his 40s and unable to work like the young man he was. This is the real angst in the novel - the fear that everything that Hock has achieved, or hoped to do, will suddenly unravel and there's nothing that he can do, and it's partly why almost everyone in the book is a victim too.
Cleverly using Hock's interviews with Su-Min as a way of going back and forth through his life, Tash Aw avoids We, the Survivor's being just an expose of poverty. Rather it's an thoughtful discussion on how our lives are shaped by forces outside of our control, and how its the choices of politicians and big business as well as the gang-masters and exploitative bosses, that shape our destinies. There are hints at wider, collective solutions - the mass protest marches against corruption that Su-Min joins, but by and large there's no real hope for those at the bottom of the pile. It is not a cheerful book, but its powerful and brilliantly constructed.