Friends know that I’m a sucker for cake. I am also a sucker for books with interesting titles. And so, when I came across Yeoh Jo-Ann’s debut novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, winner of Singaporean publisher Epigram’s Fiction Prize 2018, I had to bite. And what a treat it turned out to be.
Like a good lemon pound cake (a personal favourite of mine), this story has substance but isn’t dense. It strikes the perfect balance between sweetness and tartness, and it is tender and charming without being maudlin. The story gives you plenty to chew on but doesn’t sit heavy on the stomach. (Okay, that’s it for the cake imagery.)
Different types of cake – yuzu coconut cream, lemon sponge, sugee, coffee pound, and orange chiffon, to name a few – feature throughout the novel, as the main character, 35-year-old English literature teacher Sukhin, is something of a cake fiend. He loves eating them, baking them, and sharing them; it is very much part of his identity. In one hilarious and all too relatable scene (to me, at least), Sukhin is out on a date with a woman who chooses an organic soy latte over cake for dessert, and he spirals into an internal monologue where the love of cake is a criterion to be considered “his people”.
One person who does share his fondness for cake is Jinn, his former secondary school sweetheart. Sukhin stumbles on Jinn one afternoon in Chinatown, and she, to his astonishment, is now living as a homeless person in cardboard boxes in an alleyway. She disappeared several years ago and he had taken her for dead. Seeing her again shakes him to the core.
As Sukhin slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her initial disappearance and present situation, he becomes attuned to the homeless, an invisible segment of Singapore society that he had previously not given much thought. Present-day going-ons – juggling teaching, his family, and meeting up with Jinn – is juxtaposed with Sukhin’s recollections of what he and Jinn were before. Sukhin eventually comes to terms with the new reality, and along the way, finds himself fashioning ever more elaborate “shelter” out of cardboard boxes for Jinn. The whole experience changes him in subtle but profound ways.
Yeoh’s writing sparkles with wit and empathy in this poignant, quirky novel. Told in an unhurried pace that’s part of its charm, the story is a beautiful portrayal of a gentle friendship. It deftly explores how life isn’t just what happens to you but what you make of it, and how the only way to live is according to one’s authentic self.
Verdict: A sensitive, heart-warming tale (8/10)
Availability: Paperback, RM45