I found myself in a really spectacular bookstore last spring, and all I wanted to do was buy ALL THE BOOKS, and then maybe take all the books to a nearby cafe and read them and drink coffee and watch people until it was too dark to read, and then do that every day. I could not, sadly, do all of those things, so I consoled myself by buying only two books, and then reading them in the waiting room in the hospital, which was the whole reason I was in London in the first place. (I’m fine!)
We were at the time planning a move to Timor-Leste, and I was looking for books about Timor-Leste. There are not very many books about Timor-Leste that are not about the 1999 conflict, but I was in the mood for a novel. So I settled on this book, which is a novel set in Singapore. Singapore is not even a little bit like Timor-Leste, but we were going to fly through Singapore to get there, and I also have never read a novel set in Singapore, so it seemed like a good choice. There are a lot of novels set in Singapore. I chose this one because I liked the cover.
Teo is a great writer, and her characterizations are sharp and pointy, which fit her characters well: Szu, an extremely awkward teenager; Circe, her not-quite-as-awkward but still pretty awkward, and wealthy too, best friend; Amisa, Szu’s mother, the star of the titular 70s cult classic horror film Ponti. Singapore features as almost a fourth main character, and Teo describes it harshly but with affection – the musty, sticky smells of the buses; the languid, melting laziness of the heat.
The plot revolves around Ponti, the movie featuring Amisa as the pontianak–which, by the way, is a real folkloric monster (I didn’t know that!) The pontianak is a beautiful vampire ghost woman who devours men. Amisa, a beautiful, sexual young girl is cast in the lead of this B horror movie, which, despite the producer’s biggest promises, does not translate to a film star career. Nevertheless, this role echoes throughout her life, and into her daughter’s life. The themes of women as monsters and beauty as a deception or a curse, hover around the plot. Amisa, Szu, and Circe have their own monsters to face: none of them live up to what society tells them they need to be, and they are lonely as they wade through the pain of unfulfilled promises and just-out-of-reach intimacy. No one feels quite at home; everyone is looking back, or in, or out, wondering how to fit. The novel is not plot-driven, except very peripherally by the movie as a touchstone that keeps these three women connected over a few decades. It’s about the women and their secrets, their identities, and their relationships, and how isolating it all is, even and especially when you’re supposed to be close. There are ribbons of magical realism that I really enjoyed, and some excellent, page-turning scenes at the end.
I wanted more from the supporting characters, which were well-drawn and intriguing and did not get enough stage time. And I wanted more…I don’t know how to say it, exactly, but I wanted more to chew on. I enjoyed the book but it was a little unsatisfying, like a taco that’s missing a squeeze of lime and maybe also some cheese. The characters are gritty, but I was left feeling like I still didn’t really get them. Amisa’s chapters were by far my favorite, but there weren’t enough of them. They were easily the most vividly written of the three perspectives. There were really great insights and phrases and chapters, but the whole was less than the sum of its (well-written) parts, and that was disappointing.
That said, I think Teo is an author to watch, because she made me feel the gritty, sticky heat of a Singaporean bus when I was sitting in my air-conditioned kitchen drinking a Corona.