The cover had the words ‘A MALAYSIAN NOVEL’ above the title, and that’s basically what it reads like – as if someone did a precise academic study on what makes a Malaysian novel, and then just as precisely and academically wrote one. Like paint-by-numbers. The result fell kind of flat to me, and reads as very… academic. You see, I’ve used the word ‘academic’ thrice now, because it’s all I can think of, reading this! I truly felt like I was reading a textbook rather than a novel to enjoy.
I didn’t like the characters – but I suppose I didn’t dislike any of them, either. They just don’t evoke any kind of feeling from me, as none of their own feelings seem real. Sometimes they would speak of love, or affection, and yet those feelings are all not shown on page. During the rare moments that a character has an outburst of emotion, it felt like fake melodrama. (In fact, the writing in general reminded me of the kind of stuff we’d write in high school – all proper and sanitised with no real emotion) And speaking of the characters – if their names weren’t mentioned in dialogues I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them, as no matter what nationality, race, gender, upbringing or social standing, they all speak with the same voice.
“For heaven’s sake, Ai Lian, that is the way people have been speaking from the time they learned English in schools. You can’t expect everyone to speak English the way you do, you know. And I’m surprised you haven’t noticed until now.”
Really? I’m surprised she noticed anything at all, since Every Single Character spoke exactly the same way (the kind of ‘standard’ English no one I know uses now) – in fact, there is only one instance in which someone spoke in local patois.
And what was Ai Lian complaining about in the first place? Most of my mat salleh friends can understand Malaysian English (as long as I didn’t scatter too many Malay words in my speech), and they don’t even speak Malay or any of the Chinese dialects. So why couldn’t Ai Lian? It’s a mystery… is it THAT big a difference, to be in English-medium schools then? I’m not sure, and to be entirely honest, I don’t think I care. I still can’t tell between any of the characters from the way they speak. And while I’m sure that the lack of conveyed emotion speaks of how the characters are all practicing detached reservation, or something like that, but again – I don’t really care. I expect emotion at least in Ai Lian’s internal monologue, and without it, I can’t bring myself to care about her.
“Had four years of using Malay as the medium of instruction in schools caused such a breach in our understanding of a common language? But was it common language? The words the girl was using sounded like English. But the syntax and the use of words, not to mention the pronunciation, were totally foreign.”
Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this book. After all, I admit that what I’m looking for in a book is pleasure, and escape. There are a lot of things I love in a book, but what I appreciate the most are great world-building and characterisation – both of which I find lacking, here. I also generally dislike historicals and mysteries, and this book is a bit of both, so the book doesn’t have much of a pull to me when it comes to story/plot. (//SPOILERS// And the whole marrying your boyfriend’s father bit? ICK. Also I frown at the depiction of the Templetons as White Saviors while the few Asian male characters were pretty awful //SPOILERS//) That didn’t mean that I hate it, though. Despite my complaints, there are bits that I loved – mostly random paragraphs that do add flavour to the story, but made me think if I would have preferred non-fiction (of the personal essay kind) by the author a lot more. I really do like the way Chuah Guat Eng handled the issue of racial and national identity, and how fragile those things were for Malaysians at that time (especially non-Malay Malaysians, I would suppose) – and it made me think about how little have changed on that front. I’m not sure if I can say that I think this is a particularly good book, but the issues that this book brings up, put together with the fact that it’s the first novel in English by a Malaysian novel (or so it says on the back cover), definitely makes it an IMPORTANT book. I’m glad to have read it – the same way I’m glad to have read all the good textbooks I’ve been assigned to in classes.
“What’s the Malay phrase? Kacang lupakan kulit. It’s usually used as a reproach for ingratitude, forgetting one’s origins, and those who looked after us before we could look after ourselves. But if the pea doesn’t forget its skin, will it ever grow into a plant?”
“If it had not been for the racial riots, which forced me to see myself in a new light in relation to Malaysia, I might have found it amusing that I was more of a stranger in my own land than Michael. But in my new situation as a disinherited citizen, which was how I saw myself, it gave me much food for thought. Why did I know so little? Why was I allowed to know so little? Was I entirely to blame for my ignorance? Or was my ignorance the result of a general belief that it was not my place to know? That, in fact, I had no place in the country?”
– previously posted on Weebly