Remarkably shy of remarkable
The exquisite prose of Sharlene's Teo's debut novel is ironically what stops it from coming to life
By Samantha Toh
A review of Sharlene Teo's debut novel Ponti is tough because it's been done. Papers have done it, journals have done it. We know the plot, we know Ian McEwan found the book "remarkable", we know that despite this, not all the critics did.
Yet, as I read and re-read the novel's opening sentence –
– I wondered how many fully appreciated the nuance and accuracy with which Teo captured certain aspects of Singaporean adolescence. Having lived it, I identified with so many of Teo's descriptions, from school-sanctioned visits to the hellish wonderland of Haw Par Villa, to the visceral awkwardness of hierarchy in an all-girls' school. It was refreshing – and, admittedly, narcissistically pleasing – to not only see moments of a Singaporean experience reflected on a page, but consumed internationally beyond our humble borders. For a country that until recently could not afford poetry ("Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford," said Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1968), Ponti's emergence is in itself a milestone worth acknowledgement and celebration.
That said, when asked if Ponti was "remarkable" – which I take to mean a wholly subjective (and thus somewhat unfair) benchmark of "Ian McEwan-level remarkable" – I find it difficult to respond with a resounding "yes". I certainly enjoyed Teo's debut, and would recommend it to anyone with a couple of hours to spare. But what is "remarkable", and can a book be "remarkable" if many of its readers, Singaporean or not, were disappointed? It was only on my second read that I boiled my conclusion down to this: Teo's very talent in description is a double-edged sword. The incisive lines that had me nodding emphatically were the exact same ones that stopped me at the door of belief.
Let's backtrack. Ponti cuts across time and space, alternating between the perspectives of three women. We have chapters from Szu, 16, pimpled, stringy-haired, strange and whispering, who tells the story of her mother dying, and her budding friendship with Circe, in 2003. Anchoring us in 2020 is Circe, now a freshly divorced social media consultant recounting her teenage friendship with Szu. And woven through, in third person, is the story of Szu's mother Amisa, a B-grade horror actress, whose journey from the mangrove-encrusted Kampong Mimpi Sedih to an upper-middle-class life in a Singaporean cul-de-sac was to me the most compelling of the three.
The way Ponti is structured makes it a book tough to put down. One is curious how the stories intertwine, and how Teo will handle our time travel from 1968 to the future. As the chapters unfold, Teo pens in enough tension to compel one to go from one time period to the next, in anticipation of what hands fate has dealt to the hapless trio. She creates a memorable cast of supporting characters: Szu's "half woman, half violin" Aunt Yunxi; Szu's tender father Wei Loong with the "vague" voice who abandons the family when Szu is just eight; Amisa's clingy younger brother Didi, perhaps the only person Amisa truly loves. The complex web of relationships then seed more questions. How is Aunt Yunxi's sham business related to the rest of the story? Why did Wei Loong leave, despite his clear affection for his daughter? How did Amisa evolve from Xiaofang, a frightened and impoverished girl with seven siblings in a village, to a cult movie star, occidental name and all? And as we're introduced to Circe in 2020, whose present life appears to be filled with a handful of shallow and dislikeable characters, we wonder who she is, and whether her relationship with Szu and Szu's family was what turned her into the unspeakably grating person she is at present.
I carried Ponti around for four days in a Mauritian forest, and each evening I would nest by a fireplace, looking forward to what the next pages would reveal. If this isn't enough to qualify it as an enjoyable book, I don't know what is. But to the question of "remarkable", remarkable books are entire worlds in which I can enter, inhabit the skin of characters, and believe in them so utterly that the end of the book is an end of a lived experience. Where I believe Teo made her first critical mistake was right at the start: she chose to tell Szu's story from the first person and in present tense:
Szu is serving detention, "tethered to this walk by my own shame", reflecting as she stands, punished, of how she takes after her father's side, the "homely, ashen Ngs, a family of grifters and gamblers, smugglers and runaways". As we learn about Amisa's illness, we hear Szu's voice reflecting on her mother's cancer, a tumour "lawless…it moved with such vicious speed".
I felt it all. I felt the teenaged resentment and self-consciousness, the muted frustration of being punished against school walls "the shade of carsickness and cheap mint ice cream". I felt the horror at Amisa's growing illness, the terror of losing a loved one, even one that treats you badly. But I found it difficult to believe that this was the voice of a teenager. Something about the wonderful turns of phrase, the keenness of observation, made me constantly aware that this was not Szu speaking to me, but Teo writing as Szu speaking to me.
Mind you, this is not the same complaint that The Observer had, where reviewer Julie Myerson advocated that Teo defenestrate the "thrillingly descriptive" phrases that interrupted and killed the story. Teo's narration, thrilling descriptions and all, was robust and believable when she told me about Amisa in third person omniscient. But, if Szu is narrating in her own voice, then I must believe who she is; it was the choice of perspective I found damaging.
The second place I found Ponti wanting was in character transformation. The last chapter aside, Ponti has very little love and redemption lurking in its pages. The tenderness we see – between Amisa and her younger brother, between Szu and her father, between Yunxi and Amisa – are but short-lived glimpses. I do not need novels to be uplifting, or characters to be happy. But when a book's characters transform, as we see Szu do in the novel's last pages, I want to be convinced of why they have changed.
"So we are put on this planet and we won't make it out alive," Szu says, now 33. "But while I'm right here, I can try to be kind." For a character subject to almost 300 pages of low-grade cruelty and isolation, I don't know what it was in her relationships with either Amisa and Circe that helped her get here. Likewise, why Circe reaches out to reconnect with Szu in the last few chapters is hazy. Is she motivated by guilt, nostalgia, or something else? It is clear that Circe and Szu had shared a special friendship. But the friendship came about in a collision of misfits bound by circumstance. The Circe of 2020, who is judgmental, catty and shallow, seems to have little reason to reach out to a childhood friend she effectively abandoned 17 years ago.
I suppose different readers are moved by different reasons. A characters' circumstances in a compelling plot; the characters themselves to whom we relate, feel for, are drawn to, repulsed by; and then there are the revelations, where the author's careful layering of redemption and folly reveals something achingly true about the human condition.
I was most definitely interested in Amisa's crawl from poverty to a state just north of middle class. I was curious how Circe and Szu's friendship would develop, and amused and affected by the supporting characters' wiles and desires. There were certainly passages that captured the experience of growing up in Singapore just right, to the point where the heart rends at the accuracy. But, inasmuch as I think Ponti is worth a read, I would not call it remarkable. I'll wait instead for Teo's next book, with bated breath.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018