Frog Under a Coconut Shell by Josephine Chia


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I have been reading many memoirs written by local authors lately in preparation for my memoir workshop, and surprisingly, I find them rather enjoyable. They give me a glimpse of Singapore history, provide nostalgia, as well as open up the quirky sides of Singaporeans to non-local readers, which I try to read with an external viewpoint.

Having read three of Josephine’s books, I find I prefer her non-fictions to her fiction book. In particular, this book is exceptionally honest and I am not surprised she received a bashing from an aunt for writing so unfavourably of her father.

This book narrates the period when she returned to Singapore from UK to be with her mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It depicts their close relationship and how despite being extremely poor and against her husband’s wishes, Mak, as she called her mother, sent her to school, and from there, gave her the world Mak herself was deprived of.

Josephine cleverly moved back and forth from past to present without breaking the rhythm. An object or a place jolts her memory and brings us back to 1960s Singapore, to when she was a child and her mother a beautiful young woman. She contrasts this image constantly to the frail woman before her and we feel her sadness.

Josephine is scalding in her disapproval of certain behaviours around her, which my classmates had expressed their concern when she visited our class. ‘The names have all been changed,” she assured us. Still, I appreciate the honesty, for I share similar views too. Her siblings are affectionately flawed and ordinary, with such Singaporean characteristics they could have been your relatives as well.

If like me, you ever wondered how her father managed to impregnate her mother many times while sleeping in a room full of children, she describes it nonchalantly to readers. (I once wondered how a mother could have nine children with ages ranging from a baby to a late teenager while living in a one-room flat, so now I know.) Similarly, she talks about how undignified it is to allow strangers to take charge of her mother’s body, invading crevices and private flesh whose textures were so far only known to herself and her husband, in order for the nurses to clean and change her.

This book is both touching and sad. A beautiful woman gave her life unselfishly to her family and friends, and towards the end of her life, is reduced to nothing like what she had been by Alzheimer. By sharing with us the story of her mother, we at least glimpsed the beauty of this woman that she was. And she was indeed beautiful, as seen from her wedding photo on the book cover.

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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