Set in hot, sweaty, sultry, steamy Singapore, and extending from the 1970s till 2020. Teo deftly weaves her tale among three women over two generations.
Amisa, an extraordinarily beautiful teenager, leaves home to work in Singapore, first in the fish (wet) market, and soon at the local cinema. Here she watches canoodling teenagers, sells tickets, and watches films. Before long she is picked up by an aspirant film maker who sees in her something brilliant, a chimera. Amisa’s husband is dubious, but she is wilful, perseveres, and she becomes the star of a series of three films, the Ponti movies, or Pontianak. They are the genre of horror movies where the heroine sucks the life out of her victims. But as trends change, the films don’t become box office successes, but live through their cult status rented out in VCR’s.
Amisa’s husband wins the lottery, buys a house at the end of a dark, green avenue in Singapore. She has a daughter, Szu, and after a while Amisa’s husband, walks out on his family. They are joined by auntie Yunxie who travels across Russia on the Trans Siberian Express, and sets up a “wellness” place where she conducts seances and sells hope to her customers, and so the two women and daughter live their lives.
As a teenager, Szu meets Circe at school and the two become friends of a kind. Circe tends to be a bit snide, and Szu a bit sad.
Teo creates her characters with a tender gentleness. Amisa, insouciant, appears to dislike her daughter, or that is how Szu understands her. Circe is sharp, observant, and aware of how big business dictates to life. The beautiful pictures of clear skin accompanying an advertisement for beauty soap is no guarantee of beauty. Rather it is the set of DNA that one is born with that provides beauty or plainess. The characters grapple with loss, abandonment, death, and growing up, and the dictates of big business. If you don’t keep up, you are left out on the fringes. Even the lacklustre husbands are treated with kindness. There is a sympathetic understanding of the divorce which happens after eleven years and ends in “I’m sorry.” There is not much else to say.
Circe, by a quirk of fate, is, as an adult faced with the the Ponti movies again, to be presented to the world as a remake. She is to handle the forward marketing of a film that has not yet been made and has to make it exciting to the public. The character Amisa played is cast as a generic multi-cultural face which will appeal outside of Singapore. By having to deal with the old films, she works through the old friendship with Szu and her interest in Amisa.
With her combination of characters, Sharlene Teo explores teenage anxiety, snarkiness and wonder.
Her use of English is extraordinarily supple, and true to each period she writes in. The seventies are marked with bell bottoms, VCRs, later there are mobile phones and her language shifts to modern “I’ll action that” or you are so “random” or “extra”, and finally “hate-watching” a movie.
The novel is at times screamingly funny, at times searingly sad. Szu, at sixteen has to experience her mother’s early death. Circe sometimes comes across as callous, but no more than the blunt truth teenagers utter because of a lack of experience and maturity. Auntie Yunxie is the wise, compassionate woman who pulls all the threads of their lives together. As each character explores the same situation from her own perspective, you, as the reader, weave the perspectives together to understand what motivates each one.
Teo does not patronise her reader with a glossary of foreign terms. Instead her use of English and other languages is so agile that as the reader you can determine from the context the meaning of the terms. You will understand what a kampong is, or an ah beng. And if you don’t, there is always Google.
Ponti is a superb first novel, and every award Teo has received is well earned. Highly recommended.