Sharlene Teo won the £10,000 Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for her unpublished manuscript ‘Ponti’. Later, Picador bought the rights to it in a seven-way auction. The cover has a wonderful comment by Ian McEwan on it. When I bought the book, I had pretty much made up my mind: This was going to be one special read.Sadly, it wasn’t. The much-lauded book feels strange and is, frankly, a bit tiring as well. That’s not to say the debut novel doesn’t have a promising plot or Teo’s writing is bad; perhaps what it needed was more editing. What got published seems like a rough draft of a potentially great book.
The novel is set in Singapore where we meet Szu and Circe as teenagers. Their friendship is thick but uneasy. Szu comes across as clingy, and Circe could be best described as neurotic. Szu’s mother, Amisa, was once a star—having been featured in a series of horror movies that were ignored when they first came out but now enjoy a cult following—but works from home as a ‘hack medium’ (someone who connects the living with the dead) when we meet her.
The novel revolves around these three characters, with some men making occasional, vague, and redundant appearances. However, it’s Amisa who intrigues and infuriates you as she goes about her life, oblivious to what’s happening around her and with blatant disregard for her daughter. You get a sense of the problematic relationship between the mother and daughter from the start but it’s crudely portrayed. So much so that when Amisa falls ill and is hospitalized and Szu prays, “Please just get better and look normal again. Just get better and let me hate you in peace,” you aren’t really surprised or bothered.
The narrative alternates between the past when Szu and Circe were growing up and the present-day when a 30-something Circe works as a social media consultant for a firm whose new project is to remake Amisa’s cult horror movies. There is also a third narrative—of the young and beautiful Amisa who gets the chance of a lifetime when a director offers her the lead role in his upcoming film. Amisa’s story is gripping—the only story that manages that effect—but the character, albeit fascinating, seems hastily written and you can’t connect with her much.
Also, a lot of what Teo tells us about the characters feels pointless. I mean, what’s the use of a long and lengthy description of a tapeworm infestation that Circe is taking medication for? It doesn’t factor into the story and the description is tediously drawn out. You could argue that it is mundane things like this that give a story a real feel but Teo’s writing isn’t powerful enough for that. It takes a good writer and a sharper editor to tell a simple yet gripping story.
It’s only in the last few pages that Teo shines and the story finally makes sense. But, as a reader, you have lost all interest in it by then.