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Lit Recap: Author event with Preeta Samarasan

Fourteen years after her critically acclaimed debut novel Evening is the Whole Day was published, Preeta Samarasan returns with her second full-length novel, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son. It is an ambitious and darkly humorous book that examines the hubris and frailties of a community of Malaysians. Novel and insightfully written in a way that only Preeta can, the book delves into the synthesis of religion, politics and violence that lies at the heart of this country.

The France-based Malaysian writer celebrated her homecoming and launch of the new novel at Lit Books on 5 Nov, 2022. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation she had with Min Hun.

On how the novel first took shape:
This book very much began with the characters, with their individual stories. […] It’s about the children, first and foremost, who are just dragged along their parents’ weird, spiritual quest. It’s, of course, also about the way that the Malaysian political context shapes the destinies of the characters, in a quite obvious way.

I began with the child, the narrator Clarence Kannan Cheng-Ho Muhammad Yusuf Dragon. I started with him because I have been very interested in the way that parents decide what values their children are going to believe, the values that they’re going to pass on. I think this is true for all children but it’s sort of more apparent when the parents embark on some unusual spiritual journey.

Preeta: “We tell these stories in an effort to somehow fix something in the retelling.”

I tend to not begin with themes. Everything grew out of this idea of who would this child be, what would it be like to be an observant child yet a child sort of marooned in this weird situation where your parents, they have this weird relationship to the cause. And you’re there trying to figure it out. I did have this novel be bookended by May 13th and Operasi Lalang, and I think the themes emerged out of that as well.

On whether the novel is the story of Malaysia writ small:
It is this one guy who’s a visionary trying to build what he feels he can build… Yes, Malaysia writ small. He’s building a small community where all of what he wants Malaysia to be can be done in this hermetically-sealed context. He’s lost hope that it can happen on the grand scale, but he can at least do this.

On how she came up with name and concept for the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace in the book:
It went through several iterations. I had various, different names, and none of them felt right. And then one day, we were discussing the whole concept of muhibbah on social media and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ That’s the Orwellian concept this book needs … you know, this big hope but it ultimately means nothing. It’s empty. It doesn’t ever happen.

It’s not based on any one particular sect or cult. My parents, they never entered into any residential commune like this where they were fully involved in the cause, but they experimented in a lot of different things. My mom especially was always seeking truth. As a child I was exposed to a lot of religious movements and the characters are amalgamations of people that I ran into and also of the infighting that I saw in all of these movements. And also, the way that I was exposed pretty young to different religious leaders and the way they’re all this sort of weird mix of really believing in the cause, being really committed to their values but also being flawed human beings, having their own desires and imperfections.

On whether May 13th continues to be a major issue in Malaysia:
I think on a conscious level, no. I think most people don’t think about it, really. It’s sort of gone. But I think that, the fact that people don’t think about it is the exactly why it continues to matter. Because I think we’re not really exorcising those ghosts; we’re not really facing our history and not really talking about why and how we would want to depart from where we were. Precisely because we don’t talk about it in any meaningful way, it’s still very much a part of our biological makeup as a nation.

On whether her role as a fiction writer is about seeking redemption:
I feel like that’s kind of what almost all writers do. We tell these stories in an effort to somehow fix something in the retelling, even if the retelling is not in an obvious way because it’s not like we retell the story and then put some happily-ever-after perfect ending. But somehow in the retelling, it’s a way to relive it and to fix certain things. I think this is an idea that was there in my first novel and it’s very much there in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It’s in a lot of books, this idea of going back into history and somehow if you can think about it the right way, if you can just fix the story in your head, that you’ll change something, that you could change the way that we experience the present.

Preeta says that this novel required her to “invent a lot more, speculate a lot more, imagine a lot more”.

On her favourite character in the book:
Oof. They really aren’t likeable characters. They each have their moments where they’re actually being kind of a halfway decent human being. I have a lot of sympathy for the narrator, especially when he is a child. But would I want to be his friend? No, absolutely not. He’s terrible. I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend more than two hours with him. When he’s a child, he’s my favourite character in the book. He has the possibility of becoming what he doesn’t become.

On portraying identity and class in the novel:
I think it would’ve seemed too unrealistic to have everyone treating everyone, regardless of race or class, with the utmost respect all of a sudden. You can’t just switch on a switch and all of a sudden Malaysians, or anyone anywhere in the world, becomes capable of never thinking about class or race. Of course, they arrive at this community and the idea is that they’re never supposed to think about race and class. But they just can’t do it. In the end, they’re just conditioned by their prior lives. I’m not trying to make any larger point but as a writer, I felt myself constrained by reality. Like how would Malaysians behave if they suddenly found themselves in a place where they can’t talk about race? I don’t think they could do it.

On how different the experience of writing this second novel was from the first:
It was quite different, for one because Evening Is A Whole Day is so much closer to my immediate life experience. It was about a Malaysian Tamil family. It wasn’t autobiographical, but it drew a lot on my familiar world. In this one, I had to, sort of, invent a lot more, speculate a lot more, imagine a lot more. So the experience of writing it was very different. The experience of publishing it was night and day. […] It’s not a book that’s easy to pigeonhole ethnically and because it’s a much less South Asian but much more Southeast Asian book, it’s much, much harder to sell because Southeast Asia is unfamiliar to the West. And the West is not particularly interested in Southeast Asia yet. They say they are, but they’re not really. So yeah, it was very different in that sense as well.

Check out Tale of the Dreamer’s Son here.

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Lit Recap: Author event with Hanna Alkaf

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s third novel, Queen of the Tiles, is set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Hence it was only fitting that the author session held at Lit Books on 2 July, 2022 would feature life-size Scrabble boards where attendees could try their hand at fielding high-scoring words. The event was organised by the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast headed by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, who are no strangers to those who have been following us for a while. This dynamic duo has collaborated with us on numerous literary events over the years.

The morning of Hanna’s event dawned bright and beautiful, and the audience who came were eager to get up close and personal with one of their favourite authors. Hanna spoke at length with Honey and Diana about Queen of the Tiles, a mystery novel set in the world of competitive Scrabble that explores teenage friendship, grief and mental health. The full podcast will be out soon, but in the meantime, here are some snippets from the hour-long interview.

On how she came to write Queen of the Tiles:
I grew up in a time when my brother was playing competitive Scrabble. There used to be weekly tournaments at the Park Royal Hotel downtown, and I used to teman my mother to send my brother and pick him up. I sort of absorbed the atmosphere and would watch my brother walking around with these massive printed out lists of words that he bound with duct tape on one side — he would study them.

While I was thinking about what my next book would be after The Weight of Our Sky [Hanna’s debut novel], the idea came to me to write about a Scrabble tournament because I’d never seen books that really centred a Scrabble tournament before. And then I thought, well, what if I added murder…

On how she crafted Najwa, the novel’s main character:
Najwa was tough in a lot of different ways to write because first of all, Najwa is dealing with such immense grief. In order to write those kinds of emotions, I find that I have to mine them within myself and really explore my own feelings in order to bring that to the page, and that’s a tough thing to do. You have to scrape away the layers of protection you put around yourself and really sit with your own ideas of grief and loss.

The other level is just that Najwa is much smarter than me so it’s very hard to get into her head and write the way that she thinks, which is to float from word to word, definition to definition, and tie it altogether. I wanted to write her that way and I was also very mad at myself for writing her that way because it made my life much more difficult. The search for the perfect word at the perfect time that would tie to the next word and the next word, that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It didn’t come naturally to me. It involved a lot of reading of the Scrabble dictionary.

On being unapologetic about injecting Malaysian elements into her stories:
There are things about the Malaysian experience of growing up that stick and that I really want to see written about normally in the narrative, the same way that we accepted tea parties with tea and crumpets, nurseries and governesses — we all read this as kids and we just accepted that they were the narrative of our childhood even though it didn’t look anything like our childhoods. And that’s what I wanted for us. I wanted to read it and be like this is just a thing. It’s one of those things that I write without trying to make it a big deal. It’s not a focal point; it’s not a thing I want outsiders to look at and exoticize. I just want it to feel familiar to you.

When we talk about who I’m writing for, I’m writing for Malaysians. I may be published in the US, but I’m writing for Malaysians. I want them to feel like they are home to you. I write them thinking about how I was at that age, how I grew up, how my kids are growing up, what’s normal for us, and what’s normal for them.

On plotting an absorbing and compelling mystery:
Queen of the Tiles is in many ways my most technically difficult book because plotting a mystery is very difficult. Writing any sort of mystery is very difficult and very technical and it involves a lot of meticulous planning and follow-up, going back and forth and making you’re foreshadowing right and adding the correct red herrings and making sure that you’ve led people astray enough times and all sorts of stuff like that.

On her favourite word:
One of my favourite words is obsequious. I just like the way that that falls off the tongue. It sounds like exactly what it is — a slimy person. There’s something about the way you say it that’s very satisfying.

Watch out for the full interview with Hanna Alkaf soon on the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, which you can subscribe to on Spotify and Apple podcast.

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Lit Recap: Author event with Shivani Sivagurunathan

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we hosted our first in-person, in-store literary event on Saturday, 4 June, 2022. The occasion was to fete Malaysian author Shivani Sivagurunathan and her first full-length novel, Yalpanam, published by Penguin SEA last year. The novel is about the unlikely friendship of 185-year-old Pushpanayagi and her 18-year-old neighbour, Maxim Cheah, and how both would have to revisit the past in order to become whole persons and move forward in their lives.

Shivani, who is assistant professor in English and creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, spoke with Lit Books owner Fong Min Hun about the long journey it took to write her first full-length novel and the intricacies of the story and characters. Excerpts from the conversation is reproduced below.

Min Hun: How did you come to write this particular story and how long did it take you to write it?
Shivani: It was a very convoluted journey because I started writing it in 2011 just after my first book was published, Wildlife on Coal Island, which is a collection of short stories. I was on a writing spree basically; something was unlocked within me. The first image that appeared with regards to this book was of Pushpanayagi herself. What I saw was a really fat old woman in a white saree doing a bit of gardening. It was a very compelling image. I saw that the garden was very fertile, almost Edenic, and at a slight distance was an old colonial-style house. 

That was a very magnetic image that I started to follow and basically, image followed image followed image, and then a story was unfolding. The first half of the novel, right up to the point where Maxim moves into yalpanam, would flow beautifully. It was very engaging; I was really getting into the mood of writing. I felt very much in control. When I reached the middle point of the novel, things would just fall apart. I would be lost; it drove me mad. From 2011 to 2014 I was writing and rewriting this novel.

This book went through so many changes and finally in 2014, I put it away. I thought fiction writing isn’t for me; I’ll just go back to poetry. In retrospect I see that what had to happen was I had to grow up as a person and as a writer in order to complete this book. I put it aside, got a job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and frankly, that was the training I needed.

In 2018, I managed to score myself a sabbatical. I got six months off work to do something. Initially I was not planning to go back to this novel… I had a novella written in 2014 so I thought to return to that novella and work on that. But a writer friend of mine took me away to Tioman and encouraged me to go back to the novel. Very interestingly I realised that the distance, the time spent away from the manuscript, really helped me to see it more clearly. I could read it more objectively; I could see where it was problematic. I basically rewrote it. 

MH: How autobiographical is this book?
S: I’d say that all fiction is autobiographical; it’s just a question of how [much so]. This novel is not very overtly autobiographical but I definitely did draw on my complex relationship with my Sri-Lankan-Tamil heritage, exploring the complex relationship one can have with one’s own inheritances in terms of the question of displacement and the pain of feeling severed from one’s own culture. 

MH: It’s a challenging book to read, Shivani, but at the same time rewarding. I find with a lot of difficult literature, if you persist with it, while there may be parts that you don’t fully understand, you find yourself rewarded by it at the end. Your book was one of those. There were two or three different timelines going on at the same time and at the start, I think you deliberately try to confuse your reader. For example in the book, you talk about the rupturing of the notions of reality and when I read that I thought to myself, ‘This is what Shivani is doing. She is trying to shake me out of this comfort zone from the very start of the book.’ Was that what you were trying to do?

S: Absolutely. I’m really glad that you experienced that. When the novel starts, we see Pushpanayagi, who’s basically been a recluse for close to seven decades. She lives in this house on her own, and the only person she meets is Hadi the vegetable seller who comes to her house to collect the vegetables that she grows; that’s how she earns a living. She’s been living in a state of stagnation for seven decades and she has a very myopic vision of reality, of the world, and of herself. The way she lives life is a very narrow way of living. The process of transformation that she goes through is a process of dismantling these fossilisations, a rupturing of this perception of reality that has basically kept her in a kind of paralysis.

Similarly, with Maxim — she’s been brought up in this very sheltered home, she’s been fed on a diet of certain beliefs and ideas that are very limiting. The journey that they’re both on is one of dismantling these encrustations and that necessitates a questioning of what they’ve been believing, a questioning of assumptions, and then seeing what else is there. It’s problematising reality, problematising what is. It’s saying that reality is so much bigger and so much more complex than we think it is. There are multiple versions, multiple perspectives. It’s sort of asking the reader also to consider what you’ve been taking for granted and saying let’s open up the world. 

MH: Maxim wasn’t particularly enigmatic but I couldn’t figure her out. Why was she so hurt by her family’s circumstances that she felt the need to run away? Tell me more about Maxim and how she fits into this picture.
S: Maxim is, you’re right, not a very enigmatic character. She’s also very young. There is a big contrast between someone who is 185 years old and an 18-year-old who is particularly emotionally immature. She’s a deeply lonely person. She’s friendless. She hasn’t really had that kind of training in looking at her emotions, at her interior world, and being able to process it and understand what’s going on. In terms of her response to her situation, I think it’s fitting for the kind of person that she is.

MH: There is something very broken about Maxim, or something fundamentally missing in her and we do get that part of the story later on when she tries to uncover her own secret history. You were talking about how reality is not all that it seems to be and there is something about reclaiming history and the past for an alternate future. So, this is a book about secret histories, isn’t it?
S: To some extent, yes, the unearthing of stories that have not been heard before, the stories, the voices, the experiences and feelings that have been repressed that have been banished to some kind of psychical outer space that need to be aired in order for us to get a fuller perception of reality. What does it mean to open up reality? It is to bring in these perspectives that haven’t been seen before. In that sense, yes, there is a lot of secret histories that are coming to the surface. 

MH: There does seem to be a lot of writing with a preoccupation with secret histories, or an attempt to try to flesh out the world as we know it through knowledge that was once known but perhaps now hidden or now lost. I’m wondering, why do you think there is this current in contemporary writing? Is it because we are somehow dissatisfied with who we are today? Is modernity so sterile and so limiting that we want to recover something about ourselves that we no longer have?
S: That’s a great question. I think it comes, yes, from our dissatisfaction with who and what we are now because we feel lost in terms of our identity. Maybe we don’t feel like we’re grounded enough or that we understand where we are. What do you do if you you’ve lost your way? You can’t move forward without going back. There’s always something that occurred in the past that hasn’t been resolved, accepted or processed, that hasn’t been truly grasped. And so, we have to keep returning to the past in order to really understand where we are now.

MH: There are two very distinct voices throughout the book. One voice is very poetic, uses a lot of imagery and allegory. The other one is more straightforward prose. Was this tension between these two voices deliberate?
S: Yes, in a very practical sense because there are actually three narrators in the novel. There’s Pushpanayagi’s point of view, there’s Maxim’s point of view, and then there’s a third unnamed narrator…. the grandiose, philosophical, poetic voice. I had to make sure that the language Maxim uses and the language that Pushpanayagi uses were authentic to the kind of people that they are. Maxim would never speak in very poetic, grandiose ways. For Pushpanayagi, in the initial stages of writing her, her voice did come out very poetic, but then as I clarified her voice, I realised that it wasn’t actually that philosophical or that dense. Then I realised that there was still space for a lyrical, philosophical voice, hence, the third narrator. I have a very clear idea of who or what that narrator is and it’s sort of related to the core of the story, which is asking metaphysical questions.

Yalpanam is available here.

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Elaine’s Favourite Reads of 2021

What a doozy of a year 2021 turned out to be — trying in so many ways. But it is times like these that I am so grateful that I can turn to books and find solace, truth, and escapism. These are the five books that made an indelible impression on me this year.

Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger
During the lowest moments of her life, Ella Risbridger found meaning, purpose, and catharsis in the act of cooking and baking. This book — which is a memoir, cookbook, and manifesto for living all rolled into one — was such a balm to read during this anxiety-ridden and despair-filled year. Risbridger’s evocative and conversational style of writing sparkles with warmth and sincerity, and it was a joy to follow along with her as she shared all kinds of wonderful recipes (which are easy to make for the most part) and told the stories associated with them: a burrata salad with plums that she first made in Rome where she went on a whim, and how baking challah bread and giving them away helped her in grieving her grandfather’s death. This gem of a book is an ode to living, and cooking and savouring food; it is a call to make for oneself a life worth living.

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
What makes fiction good? This is the question that Saunders, the author of bestselling novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo, explores in this book. He takes readers on a delightful romp through seven short stories by Russian masters such as Chekov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. And he does so in an accessible, entertaining way, revealing the technical craft behind great stories (there are even writing exercises included) and guiding readers to see the world with renewed curiosity. It articulates the reasons we get swept up in a story and conversely, why we don’t. It makes the case for why fiction is the lens through which we can see the truths that reality obscures, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. This literary master class gave me a new perspective on literature and life, and a fresh appreciation for great stories.

Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver takes the very serious topic of dying well and turns it into a darkly comic, thought-provoking work of wry humour and wit. The story is about Kay and her husband Cyril who decide that they want to exit this life with dignity when they reach the ripe old age of 80, and so they make a pact to commit suicide. Well, that’s one scenario, but what Shriver has done is imagine 12 other different ways this story could play out: from living in a terrifying retirement home, to waking up in an unrecognisable future from a cryogenic state, to taking a cure for ageing, and discovering the surprising pleasures of dementia. It is at turns touching and laugh-out-loud funny, sobering and irreverent. Along the way Shriver makes known her position on present-day issues including Brexit, mass migration and COVID-19, for better or worse. What’s undeniable, though, is how skilled of a writer Shriver is — this novel is brilliantly and masterfully executed.

We Could Not See the Stars by Elizabeth Wong
Malaysian author Elizabeth Wong’s debut novel beguiles with its lyrical prose and imaginative plot set in an alternate Malaysia. Mystery and intrigue abound in a story of a young man, Han, who sets off in search of an artefact that belonged to his late mother and which got stolen. His journey takes him from his sleepy fishing village across the seas to an island of lush forest where a curious tower stands. There are several narrative strands and voices that Wong deftly weaves into a complex whole with fantastical elements and dreamlike sequences that elevate it above the ordinary. It is also imbued with a wonderfully Malaysian flavour with the deliberate use of local vernacular. A tale of loss, memory, and remembering, this literary speculative fiction surprised me at every turn.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s fourth book earned him the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2021 — and truly, it deserves nothing but superlatives. Epic in scope and depth, Keefe recounts the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis in the US. This isn’t a strictly straight-forward story, as many of the conditions and practices that enabled the abuse of the highly addictive painkiller oxycontin produced by the pharmaceutical company the Sacklers used to own was put in place by the generation before. Keefe peels back the curtain behind the impunity of America’s super elite and presents an indictment on the greed and indifference that drive them. I found this book compelling and unputdownable — this exposé is narrative reporting and writing at its best.

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Five reads to kickstart the new year

The dawn of a new year inadvertently brings with it a renewed desire for self-improvement, whatever form that may take. This is a lifelong endeavour, however, and what’s important isn’t so much the destination as the path and process. To quote Michelle Obama from her memoir, Becoming, “[It] isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

To help us along the way, we can certainly turn to books for wisdom — begin with some or all of the following titles for insight and inspiration.

Limitless by Tim Peake, RM86.90
If there’s anyone who understands the sheer amount of dedication, perseverance, and discipline it takes to attain a goal, it would be an astronaut. One such individual is Tim Peake, who recounts his unusual path to becoming an astronaut in vivid detail in his new autobiography, Limitless. Peake served 18 years as a British army pilot and was chosen out of 8,000 applicants to be one of six new astronauts of the European Astronaut Corps. He endured six years of grueling training before he was able to experience what few have – the exhilaration of heading out to space. Peake writes in a manner that’s engaging and humorous, and his inspiring story speaks of the power of following our dreams and of striving to reach our potential.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, RM49.95
There are two systems that drive the way we think and make choices: there’s fast, intuitive, and emotional thinking, and then there’s slow, rational, and more deliberative thinking. In this book, renowned psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman reveals how these two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions. He makes the case for not trusting our intuitions which can often lead us astray and explains the benefits of slow thinking. He also gives practical techniques of how to do so, as well as how to guard against our minds tripping us up. A phenomenal book on human rationality and irrationality, this book will likely change the way you make decisions.

Beyond the 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch, RM79.90
Successful entrepreneur Richard Koch first published his book on the 80/20 principle in 1997, and it has since become one of the definitive business books of the 20th century. In it he showed how one can achieve much more with much less effort, time, and resources by identifying and focusing our efforts on the 20% that really counts. He provided a systematic and practical way to vastly increase our effectiveness, and improve our careers and our companies. This is a revised edition of the book, with 92 more universal scientific principles and laws that will help you achieve personal success in an increasingly challenging business environment.

Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars, RM46.50
There’s much that we can learn about how to live from the three great Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Philosophy professor John Sellar’s excellent book draws from the lives and works of these three Stoics to elucidate how their ancient ideas can help us live better lives, including how to understand one’s place in the world, how to cope when things don’t go well, how to manage one’s emotions, and how to behave towards others. Comforting and enlightening, this delightful book serves as a thoughtful guide to the philosophy of a good life.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, RM58.90
If you’re struggling with being distracted all the time, you’re going to want to read this book to learn how to reclaim your attention and focus. Behavioral design expert Nir Eyal shows the hidden psychology that drive us to distraction, and why it’s not as simple as abstaining from our devices. He lays out a four-step, research-backed model that will help you design your time and not let technology overrun your life. This empowering and optimistic book will help you live a more fulfilling life.

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Susanna Clarke returns with mystery novel ‘Piranesi’ 16 years after epic debut

by Elaine Lau

Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, is a mystery. It is not, as the title might suggest, a novel about the 18th century Italian architectural artist famed for his etchings of Rome and atmospheric imaginary prisons. But his art must have served as inspiration for the British author, for in her novel we enter a dreamlike World that is at once beguiling and bewildering, haunting and enigmatic — much like the Italian master’s exquisite artworks.

This World is a decaying House with an innumerable number of marble halls like “an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together” and divided into three levels. The tides inhabit the Lower Halls, the Upper Halls are the “Domain of the Clouds”, whereas the Middle Halls are the “Domain of birds and of men”. Statues of varying sizes and composition inhabit every nook and cranny of this labyrinthine House. Outside, there is only the sun, moon and stars, and nothing else.

We know this from the journal entries of the novel’s titular character, Piranesi, although he tells us that is not his name. He regards the House with reverence and childlike wonder, and considers himself a “Beloved Child of the House”. Piranesi believes he is between 30 and 35 years old, and considers himself “a scientist and an explorer” who is determined to explore as much of the House as he can in his lifetime. He records every happening in his notebooks, be it tidal patterns or the behaviour of the rooks that come to nest, and catalogues the thousands of Statues.

Piranesi subsists on fish, seaweed and molluscs, and tends to the 13 skeletons in the House. Aside from biweekly visits from a figure called simply The Other — who is on a quest to uncover “a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World” and needs his help — Piranesi lives a contented life of solitude.

One can draw parallels of his solitary existence with Clarke’s own ex­perience of finding solace in con­finement. For the past 15 years, the British author has been suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, among other conditions, which has at times impeded her writing and caused her to withdraw from the world. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said that she would imagine herself in a place with “endless buildings but silent — I found that very calming”.

Clarke became a literary sensation with her 2004 debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This heady 800-page period fantasy tale of rivalling magicians set in sumptuously detailed 19th-century England won the 2005 Hugo Award, among other prizes, and sold more than four million copies worldwide. The novel firmly established Clarke’s narrative prowess and she was heralded as an exciting new literary voice to watch.

Which is why her second novel, Piranesi, published in September, was met with keen anticipation, especially more so because it has been 16 years since her debut. Piranesi is a very different animal from her debut — gone are the loquaciousness and helical plotline that made Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell either an exhilarating or laborious read, depending on whom you ask. By contrast, Piranesi is a breezy 270-page novel of bite-size journal entries in straightforward language. But its deceptively simple form belies the story’s complexity and inventiveness. Clarke has crafted an evocative novel that explores alternate worlds, memory and the sense of self, madness and imagination, and the detrimental pursuits of the vainglorious.

Piranesi is a mystery, and true to form, the first 80 pages or so rendered me utterly mystified. But as with all well-constructed mysteries, it gets good, and it subverts all expectations.

Where things start to shift is when The Other tells Piranesi that someone is looking to infiltrate their labyrinth and means to cause harm, and he should not engage with this person, whom Piranesi dubs “16”. But of course, 16 does show up, and here is when the story turns into a puzzle-box mystery. We follow along with Piranesi as he slowly puts the pieces together and, in the process, uncover his real identity and past — and what a bombshell of a reveal it turns out to be.

But more than plot, Piranesi is an exquisite depiction of something primeval, namely man’s earliest attempts to make sense of our sublimely ordered universe. It comes as no surprise that the arrangement of Piranesi’s World is eerily reminiscent of ancient cosmology, whose ordering of the universe is perhaps more a reflection of the human psyche, in its attempt to impose a meaning to his wonderment and place in it.

This article first appeared on Oct 12, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.

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Lit Review: ‘The Girl and the Ghost’ by Hanna Alkaf

by Elaine Lau

I stopped reading children’s books when I became a teenager and graduated to ‘older’ works such as western classics and crime fiction. It wasn’t until we opened Lit Books that I rediscovered middle-grade fiction and found to my utter delight a world replete with gems.

Many of these stories of adventure and hijinks are about meeting life’s difficulties and complexities with courage and hope. Good middle-grade fiction tackle weighty issues without dumbing it down and without being preachy. When it is done well, my god does it make my heart sing — and I reckon, it will you, too, dear adult reader, and not just your child. To quote WH Auden, “There are good books which are only for adults… but there are no good books which are only for children.”

When Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf revealed at the author event for her debut young adult novel, The Weight of Our Sky, at our store last year that her next book will be a children’s novel, I looked forward to it with not a small amount of excitement. The Girl and the Ghost is the novel in question, published this month by HarperCollins, and it is a deliciously chilling novel about family legacies, friendship, and jealousy, but also forgiveness, kindness, and courage.

The story begins with Suraya inheriting a pelesit, a familiar spirit from the witch grandmother whom she’s never met. A bit of a loner who grows up with an emotionally absent mother, Suraya grows up with the pelesit — whom she christens Pink — as her closest companion. Pink, in turn, watches over her obsessively, and sometimes with a little too much zeal.

So it happens that when Suraya befriends the new girl in school, Jing Wei, Pink reacts jealously and to the detriment of both girls. Things come to a head, eventually leading Suraya to divulge to her mother what’s been going on at which point her mother enlists the help of a pawang hantu, Encik Ali. But to their horror, Suraya and Jing Wei discover he has sinister designs for Pink. They take it upon themselves to help Pink return to where he came from so as to escape the clutches of Encik Ali. The two embark on an urgent mission where danger lurks at every turn and they find unexpected allies of the supernatural kind coming to their aid — a bit reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

Hanna has crafted a story with verve, emotion, and empathy in The Girl and the Ghost, and reading it gave me all the feels. Be forewarned, however, that if you have a particularly sensitive child, the story gets pretty dark and gruesome in the final confrontation with the pawang. There’s a lot to unpack in the novel, as it examines heavy themes such as the harm of holding on to something even when it’s time to let go, the way jealousy poisons relationships, and how the avoidance of difficult or painful parts of our lives just makes things worse in the long run.

But there’s a lot of light as well. The precious gift of friendship is a key thread that runs through the novel. Jing Wei is the very portrait of a true friend, a Samwise Gamgee-type to Suraya’s Frodo Baggins who jumps with both feet in, come what may. There is also the tenacity of hope, bravery in the face of fear, and love in action.

Suraya as a character is bookish, kind and non-confrontational. She is the very definition of a good girl, “one who does as she’s told… who doesn’t like to make trouble for other people”, taunts the pawang at one point. But as it becomes clear, it isn’t that she’s afraid to fight, but that she’s one who chooses her battles — when it comes down to it, she will face demons to protect someone she loves.  

The Girl and the Ghost is a good book. And as Auden informs us, no, it is not just for children.

Verdict: 8/10

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90. Purchase here.

Special thanks to HaperCollins for an eARC of the book.

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Lit Review: ‘A Sprinkle of Sorcery’ by Michelle Harrison

by Elaine Lau

I picked up Michelle Harrison’s newly published middle-grade novel, A Sprinkle of Sorcery, with keen anticipation. The book is a follow-up to the absolutely delightful first novel in the series, A Pinch of Magic, which I enjoyed immensely and could not stop recommending to young readers at Lit Books.

In A Pinch of Magic, we are introduced to the three Widdershins sisters — there is the eldest and sensible one, Fliss; the feisty and adventurous Betty; and the youngest, Charlie, who’s sassy and fearless. The sisters live on an island called Crowstone and help their granny run the Poacher’s Pocket inn. They were condemned to never leave the island because of an ancient family curse, and the story revolves around the trio as they set about figuring out how to break this curse with the help of some magical family heirlooms.

A Sprinkle of Sorcery sees the Widdershins embark on a mystery-adventure when a mysterious girl who needs help appears at their doorstep accompanied by a glowing wisp and a magical hagstone. The girl, Willow, had escaped from the nearby island of Torment, where family members of those imprisoned for crimes are sent to.

Willow is adamant to prove her father’s innocence, and the Widdershins decide to help her. But then Charlie goes missing after being snatched away by two men masquerading as warders who were out to capture the escapee. Fliss and Betty are thrown into a perilous mission where they encounter fearsome pirates, a sunken smuggler’s ship, and a magical island that does not seem to exist on any map. It would take all their wits and every ounce of courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to help a complete stranger and find their sister.

Much like the first book in the series, Harrison combines a winning formula of strong girl characters, a suspenseful, pacey plot with a conundrum not too easily solved, and just enough surprises and twists to keep even a slightly jaded adult reader such as myself captivated throughout. Threaded with themes of sisterhood, friendship, and kindness, this rollicking fun read is just as good as the first novel. While it does make mention of some happenings from the first novel, you do not need to have read it in order to enjoy this one — A Sprinkle of Sorcery works as a standalone.

I very much enjoy Harrison’s breezy style of writing and loved that I genuinely did not know how the story was going to unfold — it was thrilling to be taken on this journey of wonder and discovery. Harrison has a knack for imaginative storytelling, even if the individual elements of the story are not at all unfamiliar. In her capable hands, she has woven these various popular tropes into a magical tale that feels wholly original.

Verdict: A thrilling, enchanting story that will delight children and adults alike. (8/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for a review copy of the book.

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Lit Revew: ‘Impractical Uses of Cake’ by Yeoh Jo-Ann

by Elaine Lau

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.

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. 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 it dawns on him that 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 whom he stumbles upon one afternoon in Chinatown. He discovers to his astonishment that Jinn 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.

Sukhin sets about to slowly unravel the mystery surrounding her initial disappearance and present situation, and he does so with the patience of a saint. He doesn’t demand answers right off the bat; he discerns that she will open up in her own time, on her own terms. Meanwhile, Sukhin finds himself fashioning ever more elaborate “shelter” out of cardboard boxes for Jinn and baking her cakes to sample. This beautiful portrayal of a gentle friendship, of what it means to be there for someone, is startling and heartwarming to behold.

The novel also touches on this whole notion of seeing the unseen – both in the sense of discovering Jinn again, but also in the broader sense of the urban homeless, an invisible segment of Singapore society. More pointedly, the novel deftly explores how life isn’t just what happens to you but what you make of it, and how the only way to truly live is according to your authentic self, even if the choices you make seem nonsensical to the rest of the world.

Yeoh’s writing sparkles with wit and empathy in this poignant, quirky novel told in an unhurried pace that’s part of its charm. Sukhin as a character is likeable, and I appreciated the literary references peppered throughout the book (he is, after all, a literature teacher).

Like a good lemon pound cake (a personal favourite of mine), this novel has substance but isn’t dense. It strikes the perfect balance between sweetness and tartness, and it is tender and charming without being saccharine. The story gives you plenty to chew on but doesn’t sit heavy on the stomach.

Verdict: A sensitive, lovely tale with a touch of whimsy (8/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM45

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Lit Review: ‘The Mercies’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

by Elaine Lau

After having conquered the world of children’s fiction, British novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave sets out to make her mark in adult fiction with The Mercies, a historical novel that throws into sharp relief the struggles of women forced to live lives dictated by men, and the perils of self-righteousness.

The novel is based on the witch trials that took place in 1621 in Vardø, Norway, where more than 91 women as well as Sámi men were found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. At the site today stands a memorial by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor to mark the tragedy which itself is the the main catalyst of Hargrave’s novel.

At its heart, The Mercies is about the complex lives of women told through the lens of two very different ladies, Maren and Ursula, or Ursa. The novel begins on Christmas eve, 1617, in the remote fishing village of Vardø, where a sudden, ferocious storm claims the lives of 40 fishermen out at sea, leaving the women of this tight-knit community reeling in shock and horror. Among them is Maren, whose betrothed, brother, and father all perished in the storm. In the following months, led by the feisty Kirsten, Maren and the women take on tasks that are usually the purview of men, such as going out to sea to fish. Even though it is a matter of survival, Pastor Kurtsson (who was sent to shepherd the community after the tragedy) and a few of the women disapprove and deem it improper for a woman to do. Kirsten, Maren and et al carry on, regardless, and the women thrive in their new reality without their men.

The narrative then switches to Ursa, a well-bred young woman from the city of Bergen in the south who is made to marry a man chosen by her father, the sanctimonious Absalom Cornet. He has just been appointed the new commissioner of Vardø, and the couple set off for the north soon after the nuptials. Ursa is ill-prepared for her new life as wife to a man who has little regard for her other than in the bedroom, and is also clueless at keeping house having grown up with servants. She turns to Maren for help, and Maren on her part finds herself irresistibly drawn to Ursa. The two soon become inseparable.

Meanwhile, the commissioner’s true purpose for being appointed to Vardø is made chillingly clear: he is to root out witchcraft and all who practise it. Some of the women in the community, namely those who were opposed to Kirsten and her taking charge, are only too eager to help Cornet along and take it upon themselves to condemn the other group of women, leading to devastating outcomes.

“[Maren] had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”

Parallels can certainly be drawn with what we see in today’s “witch hunts” that often take place on social media. With a fervour fuelled by self-righteousness, keyboard warriors draw conclusions based on suspicion and scant knowledge, and proceed to hang the accused out to dry, confident of their judgment. The Mercies is a timely caution against this treacherous path that is all too easy to tread, and the harm it causes.

Hargrave has written a surefooted novel that, while a bit slow in parts, makes for an absorbing, if sobering read. You feel for both Maren and Ursa and their individual as well as collective struggles as women bound by the dictates of society and by men. But perhaps the most heartbreaking thing of all is the depiction of women rising against other women.

In an interview with Kirkus, the author reveals that she did not want to focus on the violence of the trials but on the lives of women. She says, “I’m always quite queasy when I read a witch trial book because it does feel voyeuristic, and it does feel like you’re luxuriating in the violence being done to women. I’m also interested in how you get to that stage and I wanted the propulsion to come not through these kind of unimaginable acts [of violence], but through very imaginable acts.”

Verdict: The ending feels a bit rushed but the solid main characters and intriguing story more than make up for it. (7/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90. Purchase here.

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for an advance review copy of the book.