‘Whoever believes it, feels it’
Sharlene Teo, Ponti
Picador, 304pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781509855315
reviewed by Leon Craig
‘Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms pressed against a green wall. I am pressing so hard that my fingers ache. I am tethered to this wall my own shame.’
Sharlene Teo’s Ponti has one of the best opening chapters I have read in a contemporary novel in a long time. Szu’s voice is immediately audible, her concerns intelligible, her physical presence palpable. Szu is eccentric, clever and irreverent. She is miserable at school and worried she can never live up to the glamour of her emotionally distant mother Amisa, the star of the cult horror trilogy, Ponti! We also learn via Szu’s only friend Circe Low, narrating her chapters from the vantage point of 2020, that Szu has a serious eating disorder and has totally alienated all the other girls at Whampoa Convent of the Eternally Blessed by talking obsessively about an old film none of them have any interest in. The narration shifts back and forth between Szu, Amisa and Circe, their lives playing out over the course of half a century.
The two teenage girls form an uneasy alliance, initially founded in their joint exclusion from all other social circles. We get both Szu’s grief and impotent rage as her mother dies of lung cancer, her grades plummet and her best friend abandons her, and also Circe’s memories of how difficult it was to be good friend to Szu, mingled with regret at not trying harder. We also come to understand the disappointments and maltreatment that have transformed Amisa from an optimistic girl from the remote Kampong Mimi Sedih to a kind of living corpse, shuffling miserably round the house in her pyjamas when she’s not pretending to be possessed to make her living as a medium. The three main characters feel distinct but they are also inextricably bound together, even as they try to distance themselves from the pain they couldn’t help but cause one another.
‘Whoever believes it, feels it’, according to Auntie Yunxi, Amisa’s friend, who recruits her into mediumship. And indeed, the characters’ deep-rooted beliefs and non-rational experiences shape their lives, often more than their day-to-day choices. Amisa inadvertently curses her younger brother by nicknaming him Little Ghost and then feels terrible guilt when he dies in a motorbike accident. In order to get the best possible performance out of Amisa for his Ponti! trilogy, the director Iskandar Wiryanto brainwashes her until she identifies with the monstrous Pontianak she plays in the films. Although her husband wins the lottery, it is impossible for Amisa to be happy after she has spent years being told she is ‘a dead grey soul in a beautiful shell, or a sublime soul in a flawless but awful husk of being, depending on [Iskandar’s] mood.’
Szu internalises the idea that her mother is a huge star and that Szu can never live up to her. Szu has a far more privileged childhood than Amisa, but her self esteem is so poor that for a long time she feels compelled to reject all the things that could give her pleasure. Towards the end of the book, Circe recounts an episode from her childhood when she came home from school but nobody was there to let her in. She claims to remember a very old woman who gave her shelter from the rain, recounted the story of Chang Er the Chinese moon goddess as if it was her own and then told Circe that one day she too would age and weaken. Circe’s parents discovered her passed out outside their door, with a smear of blood on her thigh and the old woman nowhere to be found. Either Circe really has had an encounter with a deity or she’s found a way to relegate a traumatising assault to the realm of mythology. Unfortunately, she can’t shake off the memory of her former friend quite the same way and it is a ghostly visitation from Szu which prompts her to reassess their friendship.
Ponti’s keen attention to modernity and urban life keeps the supernatural elements from overwhelming the story. For instance, the first time Circe sees Szu after almost two decades, it is as the doors close on the MRT during Circe’s commute. Circe reassures herself that the tapeworm Auntie Yunxi has cursed her with was picked up from unclean meat sold by a hawker. Teo’s descriptions of human nature have the biting humour that only comes from close observation of human folly. For instance, Szu tells us that she has learnt from her mother that ‘people are unaware of how much they want their weakness to be exploited; how much they want to be punished for being themselves.’ This perceptiveness is also turned on Szu’s soppy schoolfellows:
‘This weekend it is Valentine’s day and our classmates are in a flutter of anticipation. The Available girls, ourselves excluded, fret and wonder if the mawkish boys they will ask them out, last-minute, in an artfully flippant text or meandering stream of late-night instant messages. The Taken daydream about their boyfriends with renewed fervour. Their ponytailed heads tilt like flowers dense with nectar…’
The child of a con woman, Szu cannot afford herself such daydreams of teenage romance. The characters’ preoccupation with status and money grounds the novel in reality and so we can suspend our disbelief during moments when they brush up against the inexplicable.
Teo’s decision to include large amounts of Singaporean English is particularly effective at giving additional texture to the characters’ world. Even if you don’t already know what an ‘ah beng’ is, what ‘cheem’ means, or why certain characters might finish their sentences with ‘la’, you can look it up or infer meaning from the context and the book’s refusal to pander to Anglo readers by italicising terms the characters wouldn’t think unusual is commendable. Ponti is an inventive and carefully crafted debut. It will be exciting to see what Teo does next with her considerable talent.