UK-based Singapore novelist Sharlene Teo’s absorbing debut examines the complexities of teenage friendship, the realities of mother-daughter relationships and the affecting power of memory.
Spanning from the late 1960s up until the not-so-distant future of 2020, Ponti is narrated by three Singaporean women. Szu Min (2003), a solitary sixteen-year-old who is haunted by her mother’s early stardom and her own comparatively lacklustre life; Amisa (1960s–2000s), a one-time starlet of a trilogy of seventies horror cult films; and Circe (2020), Szu’s privileged friend who is now a disenchanted thirty-two-year-old social media consultant. Having lost contact with Szu over a decade ago, in 2020 Circe is tasked with promoting a remake of the Ponti! film trilogy in which Amisa starred – a task that brings back haunting memories of her teenage years. Switching chapter-by-chapter between the central protagonists, Teo effortlessly interlaces past, present and future into a deceptively simple but subversively complex narrative.
Teo’s visceral and vibrant writing is captivating in its originality. Drawing beauty from gritty reality and never shying away from the blunt realities of life and death, Teo writes with an accessible and emotionally evocative prose. The metaphysical become physical: time is a ‘pit’ nested in a chest, pain is a heaviness to be dragged around, and sadness ‘drips’ over furniture and sucks ‘the light out of the room’. The protagonists’ mental health struggles are frankly portrayed, from Szu’s eating disorder and devastating loneliness, to the ‘exquisitely etched stencil’ of Amisa and her ‘bloated and foggy’ postpartum depression.
As a ‘teen’ story, Ponti is unique: it centres on the experience of two ‘citizens of nowhere’ teenage girls who are proudly and unapologetically themselves. While Szu and Circe ‘never felt a belonging’, they revel in their outcast status and feel ‘secretly enlivened by our discontentment’. Their complicated relationship is described as a ‘tenuous, milk-toothed kind of love’ that evolves into ‘the toil and torpor of a difficult marriage’. Teo expertly captures the fraught nature of teenage life and the difficulties of learning how to express thoughts and emotions in a world that so often doesn’t want to listen. A novel awash with pop culture references, readers are sure to find the familiar mingled with the unfamiliar, creating a reading sensation that is simultaneously nostalgic and enlightening.
Ultimately, Ponti is a tale of a city. Singapore is depicted in unabashed reality: not as a stereotyped exotic paradise, but as a bustling metropolis bursting at its seams; a poverty ridden city-state, humid and polluted, liberal and advanced. Through the protagonists’ personal narratives, Teo records the rapidly changing nature of south-east Asia over the last three decades, where new ideals and technologies are juxtaposed against entrenched social mores. Flavours of Singapore life pervade the pages, not only through vivid descriptions of food (‘candied orange peel, fried cuttlefish, chilli kangdong’), but also through colours (‘lines emerge like litmus blooming through filter paper: neon pink, acid green, boudoir red’; ‘the aquarium light shifted from purple into teal . . . turned the green of cartoon slime, nuclear waste’). The sticky heat and haze of pollution oppresses Singapore as much as the past oppresses the protagonists.
Based around the Malayan myth of the pontianak – a cannibalistic female ghoul who hunts and kills men – supernatural influences insidiously seep through the social realism of the novel. Like its mythological phantom namesake, Ponti will quickly ensnare readers with its muscular prose and radiant beauty, but its haunting emotional resonance will leave some gasping for air. It is a visceral, lush debut.
Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe
by Sharlene Teo
Published by Picador