What a delicious mixture of cruelty and love, of blood and youth. We have all read books where multiple characters are introduced whom the reader begins to tie together, seeking connections and unravelling their pasts. Sometimes the clever links and the wish to uncover them earlier than the author allows mask a poorly written journey. On occasion one is busy trying to second guess the ending and doesn’t notice a paucity of skill in the winding together of the stories overridden by a shock factor. No such criticism can be levelled at Ponti, the debut novel by Sharlene Teo. She throws you straight into the winded lives of Szu, Amisa and Circe, living in Singapore across sixty years, and, if the options are sink or swim, I swam breathlessly alongside them for the two days over which I lived this book. Where a multi-voiced book could follow artificial links between characters and an overly clever plot line indulging too many coincidences, this is more an insight into how the three understand themselves and through that each other, how they perceive where their lives have taken them, how ghosts both haunt and help their prey.
It is this twisting together of superstition, dark spirituality and unsettling quiet with the well observed everyday lives of a troubled teenager (Szu), a social media consultant (Circe) and a young woman working two jobs going nowhere and hoping for more (Amisa) that makes the book ‘remarkable’ (Ian McEwan’s word, no less). Each of the main characters is so well observed as to add to the eerie feeling of the novel; I didn’t have to work to imagine them, I just saw them.
Szu’s mother Amisa had a shortlived career as a horror actress. Spotted by a ‘visionary, film-maker, auteur’, who could only name himself as such due to his wealth rather than skill, she was cast in a series of horror films (Ponti!, followed by Ponti 2 and Ponti 3) as a Pontianak. Ponti is an unbearably ugly woman granted beauty by a witch doctor but, of course, at a price. Radiant she may be but she also becomes a monster, feeding on male victims to maintain her appearance. The films were a flop at their first outing (Amisa returns to her job in the local cinema) but later found a cult following. The horrific beauty and unlikely fame of her mother hangs over Szu as a teenager and fascinates her only friend Circe, who, twenty years later finds herself working on the advertising campaign for the remake of these films.
Beauty, beauty and age, beauty and monstrosity are fascinating themes throughout. Away from the more obvious themes of the films that have made her famous, in which beauty is supposed to be a warning to the men considering straying from their wives of some dark intention, Amisa’s appearance in reality is a strange kind of burden. While she seems to care about the fact that she turns heads, she gains little joy from this unasked for quality. Thanks to all the men who stare at her, Amisa comes to expect that reaction. Like someone tall who meets a taller person and finds unnervingly that they have to look up, she is unsettled and interested when a rare man doesn’t seem so bowled over by her beauty. Men’s gaze gives her a sense of superiority (she is firm in the belief that she is ‘better than’ her less attractive husband) and seems almost to prevent her developing much personality. Certainly any empathy.
This is not at all a criticism of how the character is drawn; in a book mainly following female characters, it is a real insight into how these women, Amisa especially, see themselves through the eyes of the male society in which they inevitably grow and live. While in her real life she may not be destroying unsuspecting men, feeding on them left, right and centre, she is wretchedly destroying herself with alcohol and in turn being fed on by cancer. And perhaps destroying her daughter too - it is hard to tell whether her neglect is worse or the moments when she does pay attention to Szu only to criticise her appearance, attitude or very existence.
Bizarre in all of this, even for a neglectful mother unable to recognise herself in her daughter, is her reaction to Szu finally bringing home a friend. Circe is hardly welcomed by her mother or her mysterious aunt who repeatedly tries to get Szu to cut off this new friend. Amisa has a strange and beautiful moment of understanding with Circe before returning to being unable even to remember the girl’s name. Circe and Szu’s friendship lasts for barely a year. In the way of teenage friendships, it is intense, harsh and formative. Teo captures brilliantly the attempts of the two girls to impress each other, that competitive and self-conscious element of a young friendship. Circe’s fear of making friends with the ‘weird girl’ is so well evoked in repeating the phrase ‘I heard’ to Szu: ‘I heard you... make shit up’, ‘I heard you’re like the girl from The Ring.’ Appearance is crucial - Szu is like a girl from a horror film, minus the dark beauty, while Circe’s winning smile permits her to say such cruelties. They strike up a friendship nevertheless, Circe too finding herself separate from the ‘cool’ girls, the ‘pathologically pretty’ (what a turn of phrase) ones.
Circe has a distinctive, often imitative way of speaking, honed so that one can really hear her voice and comprehend that she is often forcing a persona in public. Her father’s business has dominated her family’s life leading her sometimes to mimic the dreadful phrases of business meetings (‘I’ll action that’...). When she finds an amusing scene or idea, she runs with it, even when this is totally inappropriate. Supporting her friend when Amisa is taken into hospital, by going with Szu to visit, she is also totally unsupportive; she calls the ward the ‘Land of No Hope’, a more than unhelpful reminder that Amisa will not recover from her illness. An age is well captured through her words in which concerns about how they are seen by the bullying girls and the intriguing boys affect the pair alongside the serious concerns about the dying Amisa.
Beside her, Szu is more quiet and increasingly intense while Amisa speaks hardly at all, and never in the moments when you think (or wish) she might. Yet each of the women has too her own individual inner voice. We come to understand how each of them is haunted in different ways by their relationships and past decisions and most of all we see them being constantly hard on themselves for their very human failings. Szu grapples with hating her mother, wishing that Amisa were well so that she didn’t have to feel so guilty for doing so; Amisa finds herself understanding her own mother’s resentment of her; Circe explores how bad she should feel years later for dropping Szu, being inconvenienced by her grief whilst still holding a painful fascination for Amisa. The chapter headings indicating which narrator the reader is with at any one time hardly feel necessary, so clear and authentic are their different voices.
A little like a horror film, or, more specifically, like reading a Shirley Jackson story too soon after watching a Guillermo del Toro film, I felt by turns secure, unsettled, nervous, alarmed and very aware of my blood pumping round my body the more I read. I found myself positively writhing as Circe described a tapeworm taking over her body and became convinced that I had one too. The cult horror film that affects their lives thus serves as an intelligent backdrop to the real story. This lulled me into a sense that some of the stranger experiences of the character would be a red herring, as when you panic as the actor in a film turns a corner only to find that nothing jumps out. Yet there are no red herrings here; every unsettling encounter and every simple conversation divulged something crucial about the women, their lives, our lives.