Contemporary · Malaysiana

The Sum of Our Follies by Shih-Li Kow

sumofourfolliesI had been hesitant to write about this book, which I had read for our Malaysian Fiction book club, because it pretty much left me with a “meh” feeling. And usually I wouldn’t bother writing about books I didn’t feel strongly about either way, but I also wanted to write about my attempts in reading more local fiction.

I think my biggest complaint about this book is the characters. They didn’t feel real, and their feelings didn’t feel real, which made it very difficult to engage with the book, because I am very much a “characterisation first” sort of reader. I don’t have to like or love a character, but I definitely do have to get a feel of who they are as a person, and I didn’t get that with any of the characters in this book. The narrators kept getting switched around and they all sounded the same to me, and I couldn’t tell them apart, which wasn’t a good thing considering that one of them was a young girl, another was a middle-aged (I think) woman, and the third was an old man. Each of these characters came from very different backgrounds, with different levels of education… and they all sounded the same.

What I did like about this book was the setting. Lubok Sayong, the fictitious town the story was set in, was described vividly enough, and the best parts of the story was when it took on a magical realist feel, like with the big fish that kept turning up in different parts of the book. The prose was pretty in some parts, and it made me wonder if I would enjoy Shih-Li Kow’s short stories more, as I am more apt to overlook lack of character development in that format. Since I’ve been told that her Ripples collection is better than this novel, I may give it a try one day. Overall, I found this novel readable, if much like Lubok Sayong’s nasi lemak bungkus – “lukewarm and thinly garnished, in portion that fall short of satisfying the appetite and the imagination.”

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