Rating: 3 stars
Sharlene Teo’s debut novel won a prize before it was even published and was the subject of a bidding war between publishers. Usually, I steer clear of books that have this kind of hype around them because I’ve been disappointed by Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome before. I decided to reserve this one at the library, though, because the debate on Twitter around an allegedly biting review in the Observer intrigued me.
I’d read the review and not found anything too savage in it. Myerson, a novelist herself, shares opinions that I hold about the writing style that Creative Writing MAs seem to encourage. Often the first book by a novelist who has gone through one of these MAs, whose debut is likely their MA project, can feel a little bogged down in crafted turns of phrase that lift me as a reader out of the immersion I like to feel with a story.
The Twitter debate was interesting because it was in many ways a typical Twitter debate, polarised and full of entrenchment, but there were good points made from time to time. The pro-Teo outrage was around the fact that an established novelist shouldn’t savage a debut novel. But why not? Surely every novelist, no matter how far along they are in their career, needs to hear criticism in order to develop their craft? The pro-Teo outrage seemed also to be predisposed to take offence and to hunt out sources for that offence that didn’t necessarily exist in Myerson’s review. There was criticism that Myerson was focusing on creative writing courses rather than the novel, but when I read the review it seemed to me that Myerson was focusing on the novel and commenting on the fact that many of its weaknesses could be attributed to the methods used on those courses.
The calmer voices of reason spoke about the need to not dictate how a reviewer frames their review, to allow them to give an honest opinion on the novel they are reviewing, and for novelists and their supporters to accept that sometimes reviews will contain elements that aren’t unadulterated praise.
In a piece in The Bookseller that followed up on the debate around Myerson’s review, a commissioning editor at Picador, the book’s publisher, hinted at the fact that the controversy hadn’t harmed the book’s success.
The crux of the novel is that Szu is a misfit who can’t concentrate in school and has an unusual homelife. Her mother, Amisa, once had a career as an actress in horror films of the 1970s where she played the part of a Pontianak ghost, who took the form of a beautiful young woman who needs to feast on the vitality of men in order to maintain her beautiful form. In Szu’s narrative present, Amisa assists her sister Yunxi with the seances she runs, occasionally roping Szu in on the deception.
Meanwhile, the films achieve cult status. Or so Szu would have her classmates believe in 2003. It takes another seventeen years for their cult status to come to fruition, by which time Szu’s closest friend and fellow school misfit Circe is working as a social media consultant, helping pop stars maximise their exposure during their time in the spotlight, and Szu has disappeared into obscurity.
By the time I reached the top of the reservation list, five months after I placed my request, I’d forgotten why I’d been so keen to read Ponti. I have to admit that the first few pages didn’t grab me. Indeed, I found them overly wordy, overly alliterative, overly pleased with themselves about what they were expressing and how. I enjoy a good turn of phrase, one that evokes a feeling or a moment in time or a particular environment, but the opening pages of Ponti felt cluttered with them.
I was relieved when the story got going and Teo’s words began to flow more naturally. There were still occasional humps, for example when Teo, writing about Szu and Amisa as children, put more adult words and phrases into their mouths. In Amisa’s case, Teo would have us believe that a ten-year-old would have the following thought processes.
A mangrove swamp slurped every other corner of her neighbourhood. There was no way to escape it, and it was beautiful in its own way, that wild farting water. When the wind blew sometimes her whole house stank of rotting eggs and Amisa wondered if the smell upset the chickens, reminding them of failure. How awful life must be for a chicken, she thought, to have to sit in the scorching yards all day in a downy coat you couldn’t take off, fucking and clucking to a point of focus. Imagine all your life’s work being to crap out food for other people, until you got fat and old and beheaded.
This would have made more sense if Teo had framed it as Amisa looking back on her childhood, but the chapter heading suggests that we are with Amisa in her village in 1968. Perhaps ten-year-old children in Singaporean villages in 1968 were so life hardened that they did reflect on the futility of a chicken’s existence as though they were thirty years old and beneficiaries of a postgraduate education. Certainly, it quickly becomes clear that Amisa’s life experiences so far haven’t been the kind you would want for a child, but I wasn’t convinced that those experiences would have left her so articulate.
Similarly, Szu recollects a time when she was six years old, visiting a heritage site with her father and coming across him lost in thought. Teo tells us what six-year-old Szu thought.
My father was standing right over there, eyes downcast, forehead furrowed grey. He looked deeply sad and angry at the same time. Like a man that had just been slapped with a prison sentence. There was so much depth in his face it was like staring into a chasm. I remember thinking: is this what adults do, brew their frustrations inside their heads? Does anger charge up like batteries?
That’s quite some thought process for a six-year-old. Perhaps six-year-old Singaporean children in 1993 understood concepts like frustration brewing inside an adult’s head and knew how batteries worked. As a six-year-old in Oldham in 1976, I’d have just about managed to think, ‘Daddy looks sad’. Pondering the nature of existential crisis wouldn’t have crossed my mind.
Other small things irritated me from time to time. Szu’s assertion that the shoegaze bands she listens to mostly come from Northern England sat badly with me because most of the original British shoegaze bands were from the Midlands, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Scotland, London, with only a small handful from Northern England. Perhaps teenage Szu only listened to Pale Saints and Boo Radleys. Perhaps Northern England is anywhere outside London. Most people wouldn’t think twice about such a niche musical reference, but the thing about referencing the niche is that you have to get it right so that those who celebrate that niche believe that your character is one of them.
Teo’s decision to have Circe refer to her mobile as a stupid phone rather than use the common terminology of dumbphone as the antonym of smartphone seemed a strange one to me. Especially since Teo goes to great lengths in providing literary context for practically everything else Circe says and does. There’s no hint of whether Circe is being contrary in not using the popular phrase, or whether Teo is suggesting that Circe isn’t as hip as she thinks she is – although her earlier assertion that working with young people keeps her trendy made me wonder whether Circe is an Alan Partridge in the Social Media world. Instead the phrase sat there on the page like a pothole in the narrative.
There’s a lot that I liked about the novel. I enjoyed its nonlinear structure. I liked Szu’s general attitude of nonconformity and her friendship with Circe. I thought Circe’s haunted reminiscences of her shared teen years with Szu and her witnessing of Szu’s relationship with Amisa was an engaging plot device, one that tried to marry the folklore of South East Asia the book title alludes to with life in the near future of 2020.
Circe’s story was the meatier part of the novel for me. The time travelling sections that tell Szu’s and Amisa’s stories in flashback gave context to the near future existence of Circe. There is a slow build to all three women’s narratives but, because Circe is an adult for most of the novel, she felt more rounded as a character. I sympathised with her quite a lot.
I also thought the point Teo made about the change in popular opinion towards actors and what gives someone star quality was a good one. Amisa’s films are to be remade for a modern audience. Circe works on the social media campaign around the reboot. She compares a photograph of Amisa in the role of Ponti with one of the new actress cast in the part. Eunice is described as sleek, zero ghost, 100% tastefully sexy woman, but it was Circe’s assessment of Amisa that caught my eye.
Someone like Amisa would never get anything beyond a bit part of a dim sum waitress now; she looks too Chinese and too foreboding, and that’s how it is. But Eunice is familiar yet exotic: white enough to fit in, desirably foreign enough to stand out.
The West and Hollywood have really done a number on people who aren’t Caucasian. Reading those sentences made me think about the Hollywood remakes of South East Asian films, the casting of white actors in Asian roles, the arrogance and dismissal bound up in the belief that white Western audiences will only see a film and make it a success if a beautiful version of their own face looks down on them from the screen.
The novel was definitely a mixed bag for me. There are interesting elements in it, but I thought it lacked a sense of direction. A lot of what comes at the end of the story feels like it should be the start of a different story. The references to folklore and the spirit world were intriguing but Teo doesn’t really take them anywhere. There’s a really good book about the pressures of being a teenager in there, as well as a really good book about relationships and personal growth, plus a potentially great magical realism novel. It’s unfortunate that Teo didn’t pick one and allow it to truly flourish, rather than trying to weave all three together within less than 300 pages.