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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 Audrey Magee

by Fong Min Hun

During an author event here at Lit Books on Nov 2, 2022, Audrey Magee, author of The Colony and former journalist, said that while writing her novel, she had to keep the reporter within in check. Notwithstanding the self-professed demarcation of roles, The Colony is a fine example of a key journalism precept, namely, show, don’t tell. The result is an achingly beautiful novel written with a fluency and sparseness of prose that draws all emotion out from the page to inject them fully within the soul of the reader.

Such is the prowess of Magee’s Booker-longlisted novel that it makes absolute sense as to why it didn’t win the prize: it simply reads too well. Also working against it Booker prize-wise is that rather than it being a simple story masked in complexity, it is a complex story that masks itself in simplicity. The Colony recalls to mind that other quietly powerful novel, John Williams’ rediscovered Stoner, which similarly traverses the themes of class, ambition and betrayal within similarly narrow confines. Indeed, Julian Barnes’ verdict on Stoner can and ought to be restated in respect to The Colony: “the prose was clean and quiet; and the tone a little wry”.

Set in a fictitious remote island in the Atlantic at the height of Irish sectarian violence in 1979, The Colony centres around the arrival of two neo-colonials, an Englishman and a Frenchman — an artist and a linguist, respectively — to an unnamed island. Entitled and oblivious, both arrive with the aim of seeking out and capturing for themselves an authentic Irish experience, to the amusement and bemusement of the islanders. 

Despite initial reservations about the intentions of Mr Lloyd, the Englishman, some of the islanders begin to warm to him, particularly James, an island boy with a preternatural gift for painting. Recognising James’ talent and in appreciation of his willingness to run around as his dogsbody, Lloyd promises to take James home with him to London and showcase his precocious, if naive, talent at his wife’s gallery. In the meantime, Lloyd is also painting James’ mother, Mairead, in the style of Gauguin, despite the disapproval of the remaining islanders. 

The Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Masson, has arrived on the island to complete his longitudinal research on the Gaelic language. He has been coming to the island annually for five years to document and capture changes in the language on the island, which, thanks to the remoteness of the location, was relatively free from outside influence. Viewing himself as a protector of the authenticity and survival of the language, Masson finds favour with the matriarch of the family who fervently insists on keeping with the old ways. Masson expects to be lionised for his work; the islanders know better. 

At its core, Magee’s novel is a restatement of the violence of colonisation, and a revelation of the play of power within a complex weave. It is when this dynamic is normalised — when the one who wields power and the one over which power is wielded forget their place — that the nuanced wretchedness of the colonial relationship is revealed. Indeed, this is stated with some force in The Colony where each chapter is divided by a short report on some incident of violence that happened in Northern Ireland in 1979, culminating in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on August 27. 

No such ruckus disrupts the quietude of the main story, save for a rather menacing, albeit ambiguous, ending for some of the islanders. The Colony ends the way that Irish novels must: a melancholic return to the status quo with everyone just that little bit more sad. 

The author session we had with Magee and Pusaka founder Eddin Khoo was thanks to the support of the Embassy of Ireland in Malaysia. Below are edited excerpts from the hour-long conversation.

The Ambassador of Ireland to Malaysia, H.E. Hilary Reilly (in a yellow jacket), attended the event.

On achieving a sense of distance in her writing:
I think I grew up in an Ireland that was kind of almost distant from itself. The core of this novel is the violence — the violence that was the backdrop to my childhood, to the childhood of the people of my generation. And it was obviously distant from me as I was living in the south, but the violence was up in Northern Ireland. And most of the time you lived your life, but sometimes it cut into your life and it became very difficult to absorb.

I think you naturally created a distance from your identity to protect yourself from the violence. I say this because as a child, your identity was so defined by what you thought of the violence. For anybody growing up in a violent situation, whether it’s a violent marriage or a backdrop of violence, they can become quite distant as a way of self-preservation. I think a lot of us became quite distant from our heritage and our sense of Irishness — by that I mean our relationship with the language, our relationship with the flag because it was so politicised. Everything about our identity was politicised. So our flag is green, white and orange, which embodies the Catholics, Protestants with the neutral white between us. That was deemed to be an appropriate foundation of the state — and it was. But when the violence started again in the late 1960s… most of us just distanced ourselves.

I became very interested in otherness, and I became very interested in France and Germany. It was an easier space than Ireland. And then I continued that passion by going into journalism; it’s not your story, it’s somebody else’s story. So that kind of life as a viewer became quite a natural space for me, to stand outside of things. That’s a very valid space as a writer.

That fed into the titles. My first novel is called The Undertaking. It’s the Second World War from the perspective of the ordinary German — again, standing back to analyse. The Colony is obviously about colonisation, what it is to be colonised, what it is to be the coloniser. But I deliberately went with the definite article and a noun. I suppose drawing to a large degree on Camus and that whole L’Étranger/La Peste, that sense of creating an environment from which you can stand back to then explore. So it’s a distance to create an exploration because we assume we know what happened in Nazi Germany. We assume we know what happened in Ireland, what happens when you’re colonised, what happens in colonisation. But I’m much more interested in the latencies, in the things that are hidden from one generation to the next. Or the things that are passed on from one generation to the next by parents, grandparents, schools, institutions, politicians, society in general that we don’t even understand we’re inheriting and that we’re still repeating. And to do that, you need a distance. […]

But I can create a space for us all to think about what we know, what we’ve inherited, what we don’t know, what maybe we should think about. […] I wanted to understand the implications of that for all of us. We go on because we’re always focused on the future, because we have to be. We have to focus on the next generation. But sometimes to bring the next generation to the right place, you have to go back a bit to go forward. And that’s the space I’m trying to create.

Magee: “Sometimes to bring the next generation to the right place, you have to go back a bit to go forward. And that’s the space I’m trying to create.”

On the passage from journalism to writing her first novel:
I really had to — and I kid you not — go on a detox programme. I had to unlearn everything I had learnt about writing and create a freedom of space for something to happen. When you’re in journalism it’s always very preordained — obviously much more so in news writing than in feature writing and I did both — but also to no longer be certain. I had always been involved in otherness because that was exciting. Journalism is the epitome of other. But sitting with [the man who’s family was killed] the most precious thing we can hope for is an ordinary life. So I became compelled to try to create that ordinariness, and what was the impact. I wrote my first novel, which is what is the impact of fascism on the ordinary person. and then I was halfway through The Colony when I realised I was actually writing a triptych of power and the ordinary person. So we have fascism and the ordinary person, [The Colony] is colonisation and the ordinary person. There is a third novel, it’s got “the” in the title and that’s all I can tell you.

It was quite a process. I had to go back to the writing I was writing before I ever went into journalism. I was a ferocious letter writer, I had dabbled in short stories and plays but then buried them thinking I’ll never be a writer. You’re also dealing with the legacy of Irish writing. It’s hard to underestimate the legacy of four Noble Prize winners. Where do you begin? So to even put yourself forward and use the word writer was such a huge step for me. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t say I’m a writer. In journalism I was never a writer; I was a journalist who wrote. It’s just such a precious word in Ireland. Writer is a very precious space, and I revered that space. Therefore, to enter it, I had to leave journalism behind me.

On how European literature shaped her fiction writing:
I was 16 when I met French writer Marguerite Duras for the first time. I had a wonderful French teacher in school who is my friend. She decided to do Moderato Cantabile with us which is one of Duras’ very sparsely written books. It’s a beautiful book, not a lot happens and yet a ton happens. I had been reading as part of my English curriculum all the Dickens and the Jane Austens and they’re all grand, lovely, great. But there was no space for me as a reader. I was always being told what to think, what to feel. I found that a bit boring. And then I met Duras and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. This is so radical for me because she created a space for me where I could engage; I could make my own decisions and I could analyse things for myself. She treated me as somebody who had thoughts and that was utterly radical. [Albert] Camus was huge because of his integration of narrative, politics, philosophy and sociology all into a novel and I thought that was thrilling. There was obviously Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann — the list is long and wonderful.

Signed copies of The Colony are available to purchase, while stocks last

I had two amazing departments in University College Dublin (UCD). In 1980s Ireland we were doing French feminism while there were rows raging about divorce, abortion, homosexuality — all these things were really introduced by the church and anybody who stepped out of line was in trouble. I was on the fourth floor of UCD immersed in French feminism, French film, French linguistics, French language, German philosophy. I mean it was the most incredible space of otherness and it absolutely fed into me. But I think it fed into me in a very interesting way as well because you know you might be reading Goethe in German or German in the Middle Ages. And of course I didn’t understand a thing. So you learnt how to grasp onto a tiny phrase that gave you an understanding. When you read in a foreign language, you learn how much you can actually say with very little, that you can cut out tracks and tracks of description and put it into two words and you still pass your exams.

That really fed into understanding the impact of just two words, or three words or a phrase and how much that can carry, and how little you need to carry a whole scene.

Signed copies of The Colony are available to purchase in-store and online. We also have Magee’s first novel, The Undertaking.

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Why ‘Covidball Z’ matters

by Fong Min Hun

Just how much of the past two-and-a-half years do you remember? 

For example, do you recall that when COVID-19 vaccinations were first introduced, rumour had it that the vaccines contained microchips and were part of an Illuminati plot to control the world? Or that at one point, restrictions had become so severe that regular people were forced to fly the white flag outside their homes to signify their distress and cry for help? Or that a local entrepreneur had tried to cynically flog halal rubber slippers in the midst of the pandemic? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I recall painfully few of these developments, even the really serious ones like the raising of the white flag. Or that other really serious one, i.e. the Emergency ordinance that was in place from January to August 2021. Do you remember how outraged you were when Parliament was suspended or the anxiety you felt about the uncertain direction of the country? In hindsight, these were all but farts in the wind: they happened, they made a big stink and then they went away.

And yet, it somehow feels important that these developments should be remembered. As a former journalist, I had believed—and continue to believe—that newspapers should be the chronicler of these events, to write the first draft of history. Unfortunately we don’t really have one, singular compiler of events anymore, not with the way media is run these days. Fortunately, however, we have Ernest Ng and we have If Malaysia Was Anime: Covidball Z

Five Emergencies have been declared in Malaysia, but only one as the result of playing a collectable playing card. And check out the PM’s ripped bod.

From a Facebook webcomic born out of sheer boredom to a much-anticipated serial that brought laughter and light into the MCO-restricted lives of Malaysians , Covidball is now a published comic (seven volumes and counting!). Narrated as an epic battle between humanity and invading aliens—Ernest makes no pretence that this comic borrows heavily, including its title, from Akira Toriyama’s classic manga Dragon Ball—Covidball hilariously documents the funnier-than-fiction reality of Malaysian life and politics. 

The series’ main arc is focused on Malaysia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, peppered with various non sequiturs and strange happenings along the way. Importantly, Covidball assembles much of these happenings in a single, unifying story, although admittedly, some of the more obscure references still required some Googling. What Ernest does so well, and in the opinion of this writer better than his contemporaries, is the way he points to Malaysians to say, “Look how ridiculous we are!” (And let’s face it, we are indeed ridiculous!) Covidball works because it doesn’t spare anyone—not even itself—from its purview. As a result of which, Ernest’s satire does not feel patronising or antagonistic. Rather, it feels more like the cheeky observations of that slightly-too-clever cousin who’s always there poking fun at familial foibles in all the gatherings.

I lol’d so hard at this. Taken from his Facebook page but, more importantly, available in Volume 6 of the hardcopy. Available now.

Thanks to the inclusivity of Covidball, Ernest has created a communal platform which, despite being satirical, cannot be construed to be cruel. I have been reliably informed that even politicians—who are usually the butt of the joke in Covidball—like the comic; it could be because Ernest tends to render politicians in the book quite flatteringly: where else would any of our Prime Ministers be drawn with six-pack abs? 

Purchase Volumes 1 to 7 of Covidball Z 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 Review: ‘Four Treasures of the Sky’ by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

by Cass Chia

When I started reading Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, seated behind the counter at work, I wasn’t expecting to fall so deeply in love. A stirring debut of historical and literary fiction, Four Treasures explores a young girl’s coming of age set against the backdrop of historical and personal tragedy.

Born in 19th-century China to a loving family, 13-year-old Daiyu has spent her life in the shadow of her namesake Lin Daiyu — a doomed maiden from Chinese folklore. When Daiyu loses her parents under ominous circumstances, she can’t help but feel that her name is to blame. Her grandmother sends Daiyu off to Zhifu, a seaport town, disguised as a boy named Feng, where she meets Master Wang, the owner of a calligraphy school. With his guidance, Daiyu unlocks a love for calligraphy that breathes new life into her distressing world.

But her fate sours once again when she is abducted, smuggled across the ocean and sold to a brothel. In America, Daiyu becomes Peony. Every day is a fight for survival with only Master Wang’s teachings for comfort. When an opportunity to return to China arises, Daiyu manages to escape the brothel only to face cruel betrayal. She ends up in Pierce, Idaho, where she is taken in by two Chinese shopkeepers, Nam and Lum, and a violinist named Nelson — all of whom know her as Jacob Li. As anti-Chinese sentiment spreads across the country, Daiyu’s newfound stability is threatened, and she faces a difficult choice: should she stay or go?

Four Treasures of the Sky is a powerful story about searching for identity despite extreme circumstances. As I sat to write this review, I was stumped on what to even call the narrator. Daiyu, Feng, Peony, Jacob Li. Which name is the most truthful to the character? Which name is the least? Is she all of them at once, or something else entirely? (The answer to why I landed on ‘Daiyu’ lies in the ending, so no spoilers!) To most of us, finding who we are is an organic process; to Daiyu, that timeline is a luxury. Seeing Daiyu deal with impossible situations time and time again with the measliest of resources is a gruelling experience. But the high stakes are what make her hero’s journey so compelling. When Daiyu finally succeeds and learns to forge her own identity, I was moved, haunted and ultimately satisfied.

In terms of craft, the book is elegant in its economy. The writing is buoyant, the pacing quick, and the world brilliantly immersive. What makes Four Treasures special, however, is how it bridges lyrical prose and loaded subject matter, especially given that part of the book was inspired by real-world events following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Zhang deftly delivers emotional punches one after another, and you barely have time to appreciate the setup before feeling the blow. Here’s a little taste of what I mean:

“[In America], I am special. The white people make me that way. Why else would they step aside when I walk by, or avoid my eyes, or whisper things that I cannot hear under their breath? My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” (207-208)

Thus, Zhang proclaims the beauty in pain, and how that beauty is anchored in art, history and community.

This book has earned its place as one of my favorite books, period. If you’re in the market for a heartbreaker, Four Treasures of the Sky is for you. Prepare to be sucked in and sucked dry.

Get a copy of the book here.

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Lit Review: ‘The Honjin Murders’ and ‘The Inugami Curse’ by Seishi Yokomizo

by Fong Min Hun

That the last few months have been stressful is an understated and moot statement so much so that the declaration needs no further elaboration. Escapism, therefore, was very much called for so far as my reading was concerned. As a result of which, anyone going through my recently-read list will find a substantial collection of pulp science fiction and detective novels, most of which were re-reads (familiarity is an effective, if temporary, balm for the soul). 

It was during this time that I came across the newly published translations of Seishi Yokomizo’s detective novels The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse by Pushkin Vertigo. (Full disclosure: despite being a fan of Japanese crime thrillers and murder mysteries, I was not at all familiar with the Yokomizo name despite there being a literary award named after him. This may be due to the fact that only one of his novels had been published previously — The Inugami Curse was released as The Inugami Clan in 2013 by a previous publisher.)

I was thrilled to learn that the books were set in inter-war/post-WWII Japan as I had just come off a Sherlock Holmes binge and was very much still in the mood for period detective fiction. Likewise, both books feature a brilliant young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who has a good shout of being lumped together with the greats such as Auguste Dupin, Poirot and, of course, Holmes himself. It comes as little surprise that Yokomizo was a self-declared fan of the popular mystery novels of Western authors, particularly John Dickson Carr, and the Honjin Murders, a locked-room mystery, is very much a tip of the hat in Carr’s direction.  

Picture this: the heir of the wealthy landowning Ichiyanagi family (former proprietors of a honjin — an inn frequented by warlords and other Japanese nobility in feudal Japan) and his new bride are found dead in their chambers on the night of their wedding. Both are stabbed to death and the murder weapon, a katana, is found blade down in a snowbank metres outside the chamber. On the days leading up to the double-murder, a mysterious and terrifying three-fingered man was spotted around the estate and making enquiries of the dead man. The manic playing of a koto (Japanese zither) could be heard in the nights leading up to the murder and on the murder night itself. Moreover, it takes only three fingers to play the koto… 

As with all good detective novels, it seems that everyone in the extended family — the brothers, cousin and mother included — has a motive to kill except for the youngest sister who, being a bit simple, seems to be the only one who is innocent. But she is an expert koto player and seems to know more than she can or will let on. The local police are baffled, suspecting everyone and no one in equal measure. Enter Kindaichi, an eccentric-looking young man who has only recently started his detective practice following a less than stellar start in life. With a string of successive cases under his belt and the endorsement of the influential adoptive father of the dead bride, Kindaichi goes to work on the family. 

The Honjin Murders is a wonderfully descriptive piece of period detective fiction replete with quirky family, mysterious bordering on supernatural suspense and numerous thrusts and parries between our hero detective and the unknown perpetrator. But as with all locked-room mysteries, much of the book’s success hinges on the big reveal of the murder mechanism at the end with three possibilities: the mechanism is not clever enough, the mechanism is just clever enough, or the mechanism tries to be too clever. I think we can safely scratch out the first possibility although I leave it to the reader to decide where the book fits in respect to the remaining two options. 

Having been introduced to Kindaichi, we encounter him again in The Inugami Curse, which is set immediately after Japan’s defeat in WWII. It is again an unhappy family that is the seat of all ills. The story proper begins with the repatriation of one of the potential heirs of the wealthy and influential Inugami family following the completion of his tour of duty in Southeast Asia which left him a broken and disfigured man. The patriarch of the family had died a few months prior leaving behind express instructions that his will remain unread until the entire family could gather together. 

But this was no gentle, wise old family head who expired; rather, it becomes immediately clear that there was a vicious streak in him that bore no love for either of his three daughters or their children. The will that is read is particularly divisive, with the fate of the bequest very much determined by the actions of a couple of outsiders including the granddaughter of a former benefactor and his illegitimate son by another, unrecognised woman. Moreover, the will is so structured that there is a very good chance that only one of the daughters would stand to inherit the fortune leaving the other two branches of the family very much out in the cold. 

With razor sharp claws honed by years of ambition and indifferent treatment by their father, the three vituperative daughters will go to any means to secure the substantial wealth and businesses of the Inugami clan for their branch of the family. Kindaichi is first called on to the scene by one of the lawyers involved in the case because of several failed attempts at the life of one of the players in the will; however, the lawyer is himself killed before he can divulge his findings to the detective. So Kindaichi stays on and becomes an indispensable tool to the local police when, one by one, the heirs to the fortune are found dead in mysterious circumstances. 

A quick google of The Inugami Curse reveals that it is one of Yokomizo’s more favoured novels with several movie adaptations made from it, and it is not difficult to see why. Compared to The Honjin Murders, Inugami is a more accomplished murder mystery that is made more complex by the competing motivations of the various actors in the novel. This may mean quite a few side plots and red herrings, but Yokomizo is masterful enough to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying ending while maintaining a good level of suspense throughout the book. The Inugami Curse may also be the only detective novel which features a manhunt on skis, although this may just mean that I don’t read enough Scandi noirs. 

It’s difficult for a non-Japanese reader to really gauge Yokomizo’s influence on the genre, but a regular reader of Japanese crime thrillers should be able to feel the distant echoes. Both books are really good yarns, and I for one am looking forward to the other translations of Yokomizo sensei’s works promised by Pushkin Vertigo. 

Verdict: The Honjin Murders (7/10); The Inugami Curse (8/10)

Availability: RM52.90 for The Honjin Murders, and RM56.50 for The Inugami Curse — both in paperback

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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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Books on love and its many guises

It is both surprising and not that love continues to remain such fertile territory for scribblers: after all, we are nowhere closer to understanding what this emotion is although we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who can truly claim that they feel not its impact. Whether it be love romantic or platonic, worldly or divine, sui generis or populous, love is perhaps the emotion par excellence describing the tension that exists between the wants of our inner and outer lives. Those of us lucky enough to succeed in aligning the conflict are truly blessed, and those of us who are not must continue the struggle. But for both, there are always books on love to read.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (RM79.90)
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent exodus of Spanish refugees to France and Chile, this sweeping, majestic new novel by Chilean author Isabel Allende explores love in many guises: love for one’s country, for your fellow humankind, and for music and poetry, but also carnal love and the kind borne out of deep mutual respect and trust for another person. The story centres on Victor Dalmau, a young medical student fighting on the Republican side at the start of the novel and who eventually has to flee the country. He ends up in Chile, together with his dead brother’s pregnant girlfriend, Roser Bruguera, who agrees to marry Victor out of convenience. As the years go by, they build their lives — he as a successful cardiologist, and she as a renowned musician — and raise Marcel, Roser’s son, together. But when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s Marxist president in 1973, they find themselves once more endangered by their political views. Allende’s storytelling prowess shines through with wonderful characters and a truly engaging story that feels timeless, yet perfectly on pulse with today.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (RM75.90)
Longlisted for the 2019 Booker prize, Night Boat to Tangier is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Irwine Welsh’s Trainspotting and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Graham Swift’s Last Orders. In a sentence: Night Boat is a story of two former conmen, past their prime, waiting at the port of Algeciras for a daughter who may or may not appear — a daughter lost to them owing to their turbulent past coloured by fast money and fast drugs — and who while away the time in heavy nostalgia and reverie through dialogue interspersed with Joycean banter poised always on the edge of a knife. And yet, through it all, love remains the grounding theme, be it a love of self, the romantic love of an Other, the parental love of a child, or the platonic love between friends. Night Boat is a wistful read that navigates between remembering and forgetting.

Calligraphies of Love by Hassan Massoudy (RM62.90)
What happens when you combine timeless love poems from masters including Ibn Zaydoun, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, John Keats and Paul Eluard together with the art of master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy? You get Insta-poetry at its very best, and the way it ought to be done. No more slapping together a wistful black and white photo of a cigarette burning down to its filter with a few lines enjambed willy-nilly: “Time / is like / a / Cigarette / it burns / down / and / kills / You.” Instead, we have Massoudy’s beautifully stylised Arabic calligraphy, which has been exhibited throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and is housed in the permanent collections of the British Museum and the Jordan National Gallery. His signature strokes and vibrant colours reifies immortal verse such as Augustine’s — “The measure of love is to love / without measure” — in brush art that vibrates with spirit and meaning.

Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (RM45)
Singapore-based Malaysian author Yeoh Jo-Ann’s Impractical Uses of Cake won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018 and is the story of one Sukhin Dhillon — wealthy, handsome and eligible. However, he has completely given up on life, and spends most of his time dodging uncomfortable questions about matrimony. Quite content with his lot in life, he bumps into the past when, one fine day, he stumbles upon his ex-girlfriend Jinn who has now become a homeless vagrant. Feeling sorry for her, they rebuild their bond over their shared fondness of cake, and thus begins a shared journey together of discovery and rebuilding. Overall, Impractical Uses Of Cake is refreshing and perhaps a less than conventional love story.

Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens (RM49.90)
This debut novel by Delia Owens topped the American bestseller list for over 44 weeks. Part bildungsroman and part crime drama, Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, known in her town as “Marsh Girl” because she grew up in a shack in the marshes of North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, she is forced to fend for herself but nevertheless manages to survive and thrive despite the challenging conditions. She eventually attracts the attention of two men in town, but she becomes the prime murder suspect when one of them turns up dead. While much of the book is about Kya’s resilience, it is also a book about love, companionship and forgiveness. It doesn’t hurt that there a thrilling denouement to the murder mystery awaits in the wings.

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

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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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The Lit Rewind: Ep 01 – Tash Aw

UPDATE 31 AUG 2019, 1.29PM: The podcast is back up and running! We’re now hosting the recording via Soundcloud and the player and link is visible in the top-right corner of our homepage. We’ve also posted the link below. Send us a message on FB or Insta if the link doesn’t work for you.

UPDATE 31 AUG 2019, 11.31AM: Dear friends, we did not expect the recording to be as popular as it turned out to be and the sheer number of downloads and streams crashed our website. We are now seeking an alternative solution to hosting the website and will make an announcement here when we have done so. We apologise for the inconvenience!

Welcome to the first episode of Lit Rewind, our very own podcast.

Every now and then, we invite authors and other guests to our shop to discuss books, their work, and answer questions from our very enthusiastic crowd of readers. 

On a stormy Thursday evening in August, our shop was filled to capacity with about 100 eager fans waiting to talk to and meet Malaysian author Tash Aw. Tash’s novel, We, the Survivors, was published earlier this year. We began our interview with him by asking him to describe the novel.