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Sharlene Teo, Ponti (Guest post by Rosalind Moran) (#BookReview)

January 8, 2020

Last year as in the two previous years of the ACT Litbloggers/New Territory program, I offered the participants the opportunity to write a guest post for my blog. As a result Emma Gibson wrote a post on Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline, while Amy Walters suggested we do a 2018 Year in Review posts on each other’s blogs. This year, Rosalind Moran (check out her website) offered a book review on Singaporean author, Sharlene Teo, which of course I accepted as I’m happy to increase the diversity of authors covered on my blog.

Here is Rosalind’s post …

Book coverI haven’t read many books by Singaporean authors. Nevertheless, I am always keen to read more writing from beyond the traditional confines of the Anglosphere. So when I stumbled across Ponti in a bookstore after payday, I thought: why not?

Ponti was already vaguely on my radar. The debut novel had its London-based Singaporean author win the 2016 Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award before even being published (the award serves to support authors as they finish their first book). Since being released, it has been shortlisted for multiple prizes. Even Ian McEwan called the book “remarkable”. Naturally, my interest was piqued.

Ponti explores the lives of three interconnected women. There’s the cold and beautiful Amisa, who evokes the archetype of an enchantress; her pinched and unhappy daughter, Szu, who struggles to connect with others, least of all her mother; and Szu’s schoolmate, the privileged and acerbic Circe. As Amisa wallows in bitterness and begins to waste away, Szu and Circe develop a claustrophobic friendship – one that leaves Circe reckoning with her memories of it long after it has ended.

The novels switches between the perspectives of the three characters as well as between different points in time in their shared and separate histories. One quickly realises this book is focused not so much on detailing elaborate plotlines, but rather on deepening its characters. That said, it remains an engaging read throughout, simply owing to the compelling nature of the three women telling the story. What’s really behind each of their unique states of unhappiness, and how do their futures unfurl?

As the story unfolds, Amisa’s history emerges as the strongest plotline, perhaps because her experiences sow the environment in which Szu and Circe’s own troubles flourish. Indeed, she is the novel’s pivotal character, with her flaws, frustrations and traumas colouring all those with whom she comes into contact – and she is intriguing from the start. An unearthly beauty, she is introduced to the reader as a reclusive former actress, one of waning fame, whose defining moment was that of playing the lead in a trilogy of cult horror movies: Ponti 1, 2 and 3. Her role as the Pontianak, a predatory monster disguised as a beautiful woman, also comes to mirror her ongoing experience of moving through the world. Amisa is simultaneously desired and despised, even by her own family, and is ultimately a restless figure. She also effectively comes to haunt Szu and Circe.

I enjoyed many aspects of Ponti. Teo’s writing is strong and evocative, with characters frequently seeing their surrounds through a tinge of disgust and criticism; while these emotions do not in themselves make the writing strong, they do render it visceral and memorable. It was a pleasure to read a book where the characters’ homes, from the Malaysian village where Amisa grows up to the cosmopolitan Singapore, were drawn so distinctly. Through these strong descriptions, the book also manages to voice a subtle critique of how quickly and irreversibly the south-east Asian metropolis has changed over a few short decades, bringing both pressures and opportunities. In this sense, Pontiis a treat.

Characterisation is also a highlight of the novel – indeed, one could argue the novel is essentially one large exercise in characterisation. Teo’s focus on her characters’ interiorities makes them lifelike and compelling. Their interpersonal relationships, which often blur the boundaries between love, hate, and co-dependency, are also striking, with Szu and Circe’s friendship in particular standing out. Teo is masterful in her depiction of teen angst and complex female friendships, to the degree that her writing brings to mind a grungier Elena Ferrante. I also greatly enjoyed the book’s exploration of Indonesian and Malay mythology through the figure of the Pontianak, and the way this is used as a springboard into an exploration of broader ideas around perceptions of women and how they relate to men.

In the end, the novel’s only real shortcoming was – regrettably – the plot. For most of the book, this didn’t matter: the writing and characters are deeply engaging and I enjoyed simply following the story as it unfolded. Towards the end, however, it became clear the book was not going to resolve several of the questions that had helped build tension and momentum throughout its pages, or at least not do so adequately. In this sense, Ponti feels somewhat like a missed opportunity – because while ambiguity and character-driven plot can be done well, in this case, the story ended up feeling rushed in its final pages and retrospectively underdeveloped as a whole. It’s a shame, considering the book’s characters, setting, and writing are all so strong.

Nevertheless, Ponti remains an intriguing and thought-provoking read, and one that will rightly earn Sharlene Teo many avid fans; while her debut novel may not be perfect, it’s still well worth reading and suggests a great deal of promise. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever she writes next.

Sharlene Teo
Ponti
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
304pp.
ISBN-13: 978-1501173127

Thanks to Rosalind for an engaging and interesting review. Novel endings are a challenge, we know. Just ask EM Forster who wrote about it in Aspects of the novel. How many authors have changed the endings – even Jane Austen did for Persuasion – and how many readers question endings? Rosalind and I would love your thoughts on her review and/or on endings in general.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2020 11:04 am

    Well, we don’t hear enough about female Asian authors, though my preference is always for the ones writing from within their home country, and I am more interested in what is life actually like in e.g. Singapore. For example, we learned on one of our trips to Europe via Singapore (our stopover of choice) that the government subsidises housing if the young couple share the house with their ageing parents. Now that’s a situation ripe for a Singaporean novel: all the pressure, financial and societal to conform to traditional values versus the ‘western’ desire to live independently!

    • January 8, 2020 11:43 am

      I guess that’s our preference, isn’t it, Lisa, because we want to “experience” life in other countries – but in the end, it’s good writing that really gets me (and you) in?

      BTW It seems that this book is set in Asia, including Singapore, even though the author no longer lives there.

  2. January 8, 2020 1:10 pm

    Well yes, good writing, but that’s not always enough for me. I’m reading a Dorothy Dunnett at the moment, and that’s very good writing, but I was just starting to wonder whether it was going to be a book that interested me enough when I joined some dots and realised that there’s more to DD than just another historical novelist.

  3. January 8, 2020 10:26 pm

    Superb review. The book sounds so good. I agree that a novel that is light in plot is fine as long as the characters and other things are strong. However, certain plot threads beg for resolution and I can see a book being terribly frustrating if those threads are not resolved.

    • January 8, 2020 10:45 pm

      Thanks Brian. Rosalind has written an excellent review, hasn’t she? And thanks for responding to the question. I like your point that “certain plot threads beg for resolution”. That’s where the challenge lies for authors who don’t want to follow traditional formula lies doesn’t it?

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