Book Review: Ponti, by Sharlene Teo

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Sharlene Teo is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend, interviewed by Acorn Foundation winner Pip Adam. 

cv_pontiUK-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

Ponti
by Sharlene Teo
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509855322

 

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Book Review: The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_The-sparsholt_affair.jpgThe Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is an ambiguous tale of the permeating aftershocks of encounters with the charming David Sparsholt: war-hero, strong-man, closet gay man prior to the British sexual liberation of 1967. Set over five parts, numerous narrators give us peep-hole insights to the influence and lasting touches of Sparsholt, and cleverly leaves the unspeakable to occur behind blinds, during blackouts (of both varieties), and between parts. Be warned: the Sparsholt Affair is not entirely what it seems.

We are first introduced to David Sparsholt as an entry in Freddie Green’s memoir of Oxford during the war, in ‘that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms’. Spied by Green and his contemporaries Evert Dax and Peter Goyle, Sparsholt’s impressive aesthetic ignites a male infatuation that will both mire Sparsholt’s life and carry the novel. Sparsholt is an engineer and athlete training for the RAF, and is embroiled in sexual scandal from the outset thanks to the ‘rhythmical creaking’ from his room during visits from his to-be wife, Connie. Sparsholt’s blatant heterosexuality seems to only fuel the intrigue as Green, Dax, and Goyle each fall into pursuit of Sparsholt in their own ways. Between the suggestive war time black-outs, this competition is won by Dax, and recorded as told to Green. Sparsholt is doused in secrecy and scandal, spoken about in the same way neighbours may trade gossip in whispers before an inevitable disgrace.

Leaving Sparsholt’s war to occur in the part break, the novel now jumps to 1965, where Freddie Green’s literary journal has been replaced with a contemporary yet equally insightful narrative from the perspective of Johnny, Sparsholt’s adolescent son. Sparsholt is now a war-hero and established industrialist, married to Connie. Together with Connie, Johnny, French exchange student Bastien, and the Haxbys, the story moves to summertime in Cornwall. The Cornish setting allows air to two flames: that between David Sparsholt and the noisome Clifford Haxby, conducted in secrecy yet with a recklessness that makes one’s stomach turn somersaults, and simultaneously for Johnny – the typically sexually repressed English teen – who is besotted with his liberal French counterpart, Bastien. Should Johnny not have been so consumed by his own pubescent crush, he might have had warning of the scandal his family was on course for.

The story jumps again, this time into Evert Dax’s house in London post the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. We re-connect with Evert as Johnny Sparsholt, now a strapping young gay man, enters Evert’s house as an art restorer. Oblivious to the relationship once shared between his father and the paunchy old art enthusiast, Johnny is both eager to gain a place in the gay scene based at Cranley Gardens and naïve about the intentions of those around him. We learn that the actual Sparsholt affair that was so pregnant in the previous setting has been and gone between parts, and we turn the pages in eagerness for a climax, trembling for the revelations that might come with it.

But Hollinghurst holds back, denying us any juicy details, giving us only scraps: ‘money, power, gay shenanigans…it had everything!’ This is somewhat frustrating, as up until this point the reader has been led to believe the explosiveness of the affair was the carrot we’d been patiently chasing. Once the disappointment abates, however, the Sparsholt Affair morphs away from a legacy instead into a story of life’s vice and drama, particularly for gay men in a liberated London. It is a generational comparison, pulling a colourful contrast of experience from each side of 1967.

By the 90s we are led by Lucy, the child (born in the part-break) of Johnny and a lesbian couple who had requested him to ‘do a baby for us’. We see Johnny finally in the new millennium, where parenting and dating apps have again revolutionized the gay landscape. Johnny does his best to adapt, as a successful portrait painter who suffers love, loss, and reincarnation.

As a first-time reader of Hollinghurst, his tendency to let pivotal scenes happen between the parts can leave you feeling crestfallen, but the Sparsholt Affair withstands these temporary disappointments as one begins to recognize the larger, comedic, and charming design of the story.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781509844937

DWRF 2017: Hannah Kent with Majella Cullinane

Book Review: Cold Earth, by Ann Cleeves

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_cold_earthSeveral people had told me that I’d enjoy Ann Cleeves’ books and I wish now I’d sought her out earlier. Cold Earth is Cleeves’ thirtieth novel and the seventh in her Shetland series, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

Set in the Shetland Islands, the book begins with a landslide at a funeral. Local detective inspector Jimmy Perez is at the graveside of his old friend Magnus when the landslide hits, and he watches it sweep away part of an old croft further down the hill. Unsure if anyone had been renting the croft, Perez goes to check. He spots a flash of red amongst the debris and finds the body of an exotic woman in a flowing red evening dress – not your usual Shetland winter apparel.

When investigations reveal the landslide didn’t kill her, that she had been murdered, Perez becomes obsessed with uncovering who she is and who killed her. Due to the damage inflicted by the landslide, finding clues in the croft isn’t easy. Two photos and a letter addressed ‘Dear Alis’ are all he has to go on. He invites Willow Reeves, a senior detective from the mainland, to join him and his sidekick Sandy Wilson. When Reeves arrives, it soon becomes clear there is unfinished business between her and Perez, but neither will let it get in the way of the investigation.

There are many inhabitants with many secrets, meaning there are also many suspects. The team uncovers evidence the dead woman had links to a number of locals, but does this mean one of them killed her? We learn a bit about most of the characters and once the dead woman’s identity is revealed, it seems almost every one of them could have had a motive for wanting her dead.

Just when you think you think you’ve got it sussed, a snippet about another suspect casts doubt in your mind.

I found the book really readable, and once I started I found it hard to put down. Having said that, I did feel the conclusion was a little rushed and a little melodramatic. It hasn’t put me off wanting to read more of Ann Cleeves’ books though, even if just to find out what happens between Perez and Reeves!

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Cold Earth
by Ann Cleeves
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781447278214

Book Review: Among the Lemon Trees, by Nadia Marks

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_among_the_lemon_treesAnna’s twenty-five year marriage has hit a crisis and, with her two grown children off travelling for the summer, it is time for her to make time for herself, to reflect on her relationship and consider her future. And when her aging father decides he wants to spend the summer on his native Greek island, the perfect opportunity for relaxing and contemplating presents itself. Neither Anna or her father have been to the island since her mother died four years ago, however when they arrive, they slip back into the family’s welcoming and loving embrace. Memories of hot, lazy summers with Greek cousins aplenty flood back and soon Anna is one of the locals again.

Amidst the sun and idyllic settings, Anna slowly examines her heart as she is enfolded in the security of friendship and the familiar. The Greeks recognise four different kinds of love (agape – spiritual love; Éros – physical, passionate love; philia – ‘mental’ love, regard or friendship and storgé – affectionate love) and while on the island, Anna comes closer to understanding each of these through her own experiences both past and present, and from uncovering a closely guarded family secret. It is this secret, revealed initially through letters, that provides much of the action of the story – we are taken back to where it all began, pre-World War II. Not only does this history relate a dramatic love story, it opens a window into the lives of everyday citizens in both Greece and Italy during the conflict.

Gently paced, as is suitable for a story reflecting on the many aspects of love and set in a sun drenched Mediterranean island, the story really picks up once Anna discovers the hidden letters in her aunt’s house. Marks has done a fine job of knitting the past with the present and bringing together a village of varied supporting characters who each have an important role to play in helping Anna through her summer of growth and change. At the end of the story, she better understands her personal definition of love in all its forms.

Born in Cyprus and raised in London, Marks is well equipped to introduce us to life in the Greek village with its traditions and daily workings. Her background is in journalism and this is her third novel. Filled with sunny days, sparkling seas and balmy nights under the stars, Among the Lemon Trees could be just the ticket for the approaching cold rainy weekends.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Among the Lemon Trees
by Nadia Marks
Pan Macmillan, 2017
9781509815722

Book Review: Little Deaths, by Emma Flint

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_little_deaths.jpgBeing someone with a love of the USA as it was in the fifties and sixties, I had high hopes for Emma Flint’s book, Little Deaths. Set in the summer of 1965 in New York, it featured the disappearance of two young children from their home and focused on their non-conventional mother.

The book begins in prison and in a series of flashbacks we learn of the life Ruth Malone had on the outside. The freedom, the men, the stresses of caring for two children on her own, and the resentment for how her life has turned out.

Next Ruth is now being questioned by the police, and we soon learn that she woke up one morning to find her two children, five-year-old Frankie and four-year-old Cindy, missing from their apartment. She is separated from the children’s father, Frank, and the couple are embroiled in a custody battle. Ruth assumes he’s taken the kids; he denies it.

The police focus on her as their chief suspect, mainly because of the way she looks and acts. Ruth is a bright, vivacious woman who works in a bar and wears too much makeup and too-short skirts. She also has a number of male friends, something USA in the 1960’s was not always ready to accept.

In the hands of someone who knows their location well, a book set in this era in the USA is a magical thing. Emma Flint is a UK writer who lives in London. I don’t know if she’s spent much time in the USA but the scenes lack colour and atmosphere and seem forced. The parts with the journalist who takes on Ruth’s story are a bit more believable, but even then, there are some moments when you’re reminded it’s definitely a work of fiction.

I didn’t find out until after I’d finished the book that Little Deaths was based on the true story of Alice Crimmins. Out of curiosity I looked for more information on the real case and found Flint had followed the facts – very closely. I also discovered hers was the 10th fictional account of the case.

As an avid reader of true crime magazines as a teenager and with the book being based on a true story, I should have loved Flint’s book, but I didn’t. I found the book not quite satisfying and the ending disappointing, and I also felt cheated that the book was not really the work of a talented and imaginative author, but one who reworked an old story.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Little Deaths
by Emma Flint
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781509826599

Book Review: Anxiety for Beginners, by Eleanor Morgan

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anxiety_for_beginnersIf the fluorescent cover doesn’t catch your eye, the title will. In Anxiety for Beginners, Eleanor Morgan tells us what it’s like to live with anxiety and why it’s so important to identify and learn to manage it. She leads off with a raw account of her own experiences, then explores what anxiety is, why it happens and what can be done about it.

Morgan reassures us that feeling anxious need not be a life-sentence – that it is possible to get on top of it and that we can learn to deal with the intrusive chorus of ‘What ifs?’ that roll through our minds. She reminds us that some anxiety is okay, even essential – especially in situations that are in some way threatening, where anxiety prepares us to act. It’s when anxiety takes over and our response is disproportionate to the threat that it causes distress. That is the point that we should seek help – or support someone else to seek help if we see that anxiety is dominating their life.

I share her belief that spreading knowledge about what anxiety is – and the different forms it may take – is beneficial not only for people living with anxiety, but also for their partners, families and friends. She’s quite frank that anxiety can ‘creep or crash’ into anyone’s life without warning. This means that even if we are not living with anxiety ourselves, there’s a good chance that someone we know is: someone we live with, someone we study or work with, a friend, neighbour or colleague.

Morgan tackles a serious topic with empathy and humor – and a generous smattering of f-words. Her first experience with anxiety was at age 17. She describes feeling that she was about to detonate or crack down the middle like an egg – her legs hollow, her breathing ragged, her guts fizzing. She’s open about the challenges she continues to face – although she has, over time, learned how to manage her anxiety on an ongoing basis. Even so, she admits that – like many of us – she’s still searching for that elusive ‘sweet spot between allowing [herself] to relax and pushing [herself] to do more’.

Morgan does a good job of helping us to understand what’s going on inside the brain and body, the physiological basis of anxiety. In exploring the causes, symptoms and consequences of anxiety, she’s spoken with psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral neuroscientists and academics, as well as others, including several well-known people, who live with anxiety disorders. Morgan is based in East London and so draws primarily on material from the United Kingdom, although there’s a sprinkling of information from other countries too. She’s written a well-researched book with information and resources drawn from diverse sources, although none of it from Aotearoa/New Zealand. There are plenty of references throughout most chapters, as well as a bibliography and a detailed index. It’s a book you can go back to if you want to learn more or point a friend towards resources.

Morgan makes it clear that although there are common symptoms, there can be tremendous variation in how each individual experiences anxiety. She’s a firm believer that people should be offered a choice about how to manage their symptoms, although cautions that it’s easy to get swamped by information during the search for relief. Despite knowing the importance of finding good, informed care and support, some of her own experiences with helping professionals have been of variable quality.

There’s a surprisingly brief chapter on how to help someone else with anxiety. It points to a range of websites, as well as reminding us to be patient and non-judgemental.

Morgan tells it like it is. She wants readers to understand that although there’s no perfect antidote for anxiety, there are a number of things that are likely to help over time. For her, cognitive behavioural therapy has made a world of difference. For some people living with anxiety medication will be effective, for others it may be therapy, exercise, meditation or mindfulness – or a combination of different approaches. (Dogs may have a role to play too: the single photo in the book is of Morgan’s re-homed schnauzer-cocker spaniel cross, Pamela – a Hairy Maclary lookalike bringing ‘joy, routine and purpose’ into Morgan’s life.)

I appreciated Morgan’s honesty, humour and optimism. She’s encouraged by society’s gradual shift towards considering mental health problems as less of a stigma and more a part of what it means to be a human being: ‘a bump in the road, rather than the end of it’. She stresses the importance of improving public education and awareness of anxiety and other mental health problems, so that all of us know what is available and what might help. Her book is an excellent place to start.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Anxiety for Beginners
by Eleanor Morgan
Publisher: Bluebird (a Pan Macmillan imprint)
ISBN 9781509813261