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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.

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Lit Review: ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ by Isabel Allende

by Elaine Lau

Gripped by the plight of thousands of Spanish Republicans who fled the country at the end of the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in horrid concentration camps in France, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1939 chartered the cargo ship SS Winnipeg to ship 2,200 Republican refugees to Chile where they were welcomed with open arms.

This incredible humanitarian feat is the platform for the new historical novel by acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende titled A Long Petal of the Sea. Although Allende had grown up with direct, first-hand knowledge of the great rescue — her grandfather was amongst those who welcomed the refugees when they docked — it was only after she met Victor, one of the last surviving refugees who made the trip, and learnt about his story that the desire to write A Long Petal was sparked.

And what a glorious novel it is: expansive in scope — the novel’s timeline spans more than 50 years — and rich in historical detail. A Long Petal of the Sea, Neruda’s description of Chile, is a complex tapestry comprising myriad characters and narrative strands, but at its heart is the story of a young medical student, Victor Dalmau, and his dead brother’s expectant girlfriend and gifted pianist, Roser Bruguera. With the noose tightening around them in Francoist Spain, the desperate pair agrees to a marriage of convenience that would enable them passage on the SS Winnipeg and a new life in Chile.

Once there, the wealthy del Solar family take the Dalmaus under their wing. Victor returns to medical school and becomes a sought-after cardiologist while Roser becomes a successful musician. Together, they raise Marcel, Roser’s son from her relationship with Victor’s brother. The arrangement is a pragmatic one for the couple who essentially live separate lives: Victor has a brief but deeply consequential affair with Ofelia del Solar, while Roser pursues her own love interests as well. Nonetheless, as the years go by, the two find that their affection for each other has blossomed into something more than mere platonic love. But it doesn’t end there, for, when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s democratically elected president in 1973, the Dalmaus once again find themselves in danger because of their political allegiances.

Allende has written an engrossing tale that sweeps one back to the turbulent times of the Spanish civil war, and yet it is a tale that feels perfectly on pulse with today. It is a beautiful story of family, loss, survival, hope and belonging. But it is also a story of love and its many guises: familial and patriotic; love for your fellow humankind, for art, music and poetry, and also carnal love and the kind borne out of shared adversity that results in deep mutual respect and trust for one another.

Above all, the book is a tender homage to Neruda, his poetry, and his extraordinary deed of kindness — an urgent reminder of our shared humanity, and that the refugee crisis around the world today needs to be met with courage and compassion, with political will and direct action.

Verdict: A captivating drama anchored by a wonderful cast of characters and imbued with humanity and a lot of heart. This story will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Bloomsbury for the advance review copy of the book.

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Chew on this: Five food books to indulge in

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We, as a species, have a unique relationship with food. No longer mere fuel for our bodies — that uncomplicated relationship has gone the way of cavemen and woolly mammoths — food is the instantiation and expression of culture, of class both economic and social, of religiosity and, indeed, of our very basic identities.

What else explains the millions upon millions of food pictures now clogging up our social media feeds? Or the envious oohs and aahs that accompany said pictures? Or the countless hours and billions of dollars expended in search of authentic and unique cuisine, and in developing new textures and tastes to excite the palate? After all, gold loses its lustre while fame grows tiresome: perhaps like love, food is an appetite for which we never weary.

It also explains why food writing remains so incredibly popular with readers and publishers alike. The following are our selections of some recently published food books we think worth reading.

Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it All with Rene Redzepi, the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier (RM89.90)
Jeff Gordinier was a food writer at the New York Times when he received an invitation of a lifetime: to be part of the entourage on several gastronomic and culinary trips to Mexico, Australia, Denmark and Norway with none other than chef extraordinaire, René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, had topped the World’s Best Restaurant list for several years. What follows is a rollicking account of landing in new destinations to seek out exotic ingredients and sample exquisite flavours, all so that Redzepi and his team could chart new territory in their offering of haute cuisine. Gordinier writes with admiration on the inner-workings of the Danish chef’s mind — he observed the man’s manic drive for perfection, his obsessive creative process and constant search for inspiration, and his sheer imagination. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Redzepi to enjoy this delectable food and travel memoir that will likely leave you hungry for more.

Milk: A 10,000-Year History by Mark Kurlansky (RM69.90)
The best-selling author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A World History returns with this fascinating cultural, economic, and culinary monograph on milk and all things dairy. Ever since the domestication of animals more than 10,000 years ago, humans have used milk of other mammals as a source of nourishment and turned it into foods such as cheese, yogurt, kefir and ice cream. Kurlansky traces milk’s history from antiquity to the present, from families keeping dairy cows to produce their own milk to mass production and the introduction of pasteurisation. Today, milk is still a test case among the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurisation. Written in his signature entertaining style, Milk demonstrates Kurlansky’s unparalleled ability to dive deep into a single subject revealing secret histories and remarkable stories in a highly entertaining fashion.

The Best American Food Writing 2019 (RM89.90)
In this evocative and wonderfully diverse anthology, award-winning author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat has gathered a mouth-watering collection of 2019’s finest writing about food and drink in the US. There are stories for every taste and preference: there’s a piece on the reclamation of the queer history of tapas, another on the dizzying array of Kit Kats in Japan, a spotlight on a day in the life of a restaurant inspector, and an essay about eggs that segues into an exploration of purity myths, gender and sex, to name a few. The stories here will not only inspire but also provoke critical thinking and new perspectives about the food we eat (or don’t). In each case, the stories also reveal just how much our food is a part of our identity and how much time and effort we spend to make our food just right.

Only in Tokyo: Two Chefs, 24 Hours, the Ultimate Food City by Michael Ryan & Luke Burgess (RM119.50)
Tokyo, Japan is undoubtedly a food-lover’s paradise that offers up a plethora of epicurean delights. But with such a dizzying array of choices, it can be a bit overwhelming. In Only in Tokyo, Australian chefs (and Japanophiles) Michael Ryan and Luke Burgess narrow down the choices for you by highlighting genuinely local food experiences — no tourist traps here — with compelling stories and insight into the individuals behind the restaurants, cafés, bars and tea houses. Most of the venues featured are towards the west of Tokyo (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Meguro and Minato), and the book starts with breakfast haunts and moves through to lunch venues, mid-afternoon joints, dinner destinations, and watering holes. The short, punchy text is complemented with charming photos by Burgess, and the notes on favourite dishes make this a delightfully personal and compelling guidebook.

Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan (RM149.90)
Yasmin Khan is an award-winning author, campaigner and cook who is passionate about sharing people’s stories through food. Her second book, Zaitoun, is part cookbook, part travelogue that focuses on Palestine, its people and cuisine. Palestinian food can best be described as fresh and bright, as it revolves around colourful mezze dishes that feature the region’s bountiful produce and earthy spices. The cuisine has evolved over several millennia through the influences of Arabic, Jewish, Armenian, Persian, Turkish and Bedouin cultures and civilisations. Featuring more than 80 modern recipes, captivating stories and stunning travel photography, Zaitoun unlocks the flavours and fragrances of modern Palestine, from the sun-kissed pomegranate stalls of Akka on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea through evergreen oases of date plantations in the Jordan Valley, to the fading fish markets of Gaza City.

This article appears in the January 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.