I didn’t know what this book was about, except that it was an Epigram Fiction Prize finalist until I borrowed it from the library. After reading the first few chapters, I realised it was inspired by the story of the HDB minister Teh Cheang Wan, who committed suicide after a corruption investigation. As Epigram’s boss Edmund Wee often says, inspirations for writers are abound – just read local news.
What’s interesting to me is how the author chooses to name her characters in the book. PM of Singapore is Mr Edward Wee, (Edmund Wee, publisher, *wink wink*) and who should be the children of the perm sec Chow who committed suicide – there is a Hoong, Ling and a Yang…and a Ming just to soften whatever link there is. (It’s not just me who is imagining things right?)
I had some problems with the omniscient POV in the first chapter but this is quickly rectified as I progressed as we follow the four adult children of Chow through their POVs. Set in the 80s, there is this tinge of anti-government, criticism of policies or just the distaste for the money-mindedness of the government and Singaporeans as a whole, which prompted me to read the back page about the author and the blurbs. Not surprising, Wong was a detainee of ISA and the blurbs are contributed by some well-known critics of the government, other than Philip Jeyaretnam, brother of another opposition leader but not known as a critic himself. I wish she would leave the info about being a detainee of ISA out so that I can read this book without any bias.
I enjoyed the story, although I generally did not give too much focus on the political plots and the chapter of Edward Wee’s diary, which I found redundant. The portrayal of her characters is very realistic, especially Ling, and how she survived the detention was poignant in the book, especially after what I learned about the author.
I read many books and what I discover about Asian writers is their fondness for bombastic vocabulary, in this case: comeuppance, epicanthus fold (I like this word), cornucopia, etc – a tad irritating when I was reading the book during a long journey in Sri Lanka with no wifi to check the dictionary.
After reading the book, I say kudos to NLB for having it on the shelf, which speaks more than Epigram publishing it or whatever fear the author had harboured before the book was published.