When I was a fledgling fiction writer – at least more fledgling than I am now – I participated in a writing residency program whereby I had to produce four pieces of my own choosing. I wrote two essays and two pieces of fiction, both of which attempted to interrogate the gulf I often felt between my ideas of what a romantic relationship should look like and the actual experience of negotiating the murky, inconclusive world of courtship and love. I handed them to my editor. The feedback was positive, but equivocal. “Good”, she said. “But you have totally failed the Bechdel test”.
Thankfully, it’s an issue not suffered in Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, a debut that is assured, mature, and which is totally occupied by the three women who sit at the heart of it. This does not feel like an authorial choice but an imperative, given how fulsome, real and varied the three women feel. I could have learnt a lot from the way Ponti is put together, apart from the perils of focusing solely on analogised versions of my own romantic tragedies. It’s a clear, vibrant work that honours the difficulties we all face being saddled with a past that we can’t always comprehend. Teo allows her characters to take full breadth, calling attention to the slights and inflictions we all receive and of which we are so readily dismissive.
Ponti is told from the perspective of the three women, in clipped, spliced chapters. In 2003, Szu is a sixteen-year-old pupil at the Whampoa Convent of the Eternally Blessed. She hates school with the dull and crotchety rancour so typical of high school students. Szu, though, is smart and self-aware: she crisply iterates that despite attending a convent school, there’s “nothing pious about the things that teenage girls inflict upon each other”. Things begin to look better when she meets Circe, a fellow student who she first encounters sprawled on the concrete concourse of the school. Circe’s arrival in the novel, tinged with the supernatural, mirrors the way that many events unfold within the narrative. Like Szu, Circe is also given a first person voice – but hers largely operates retrospectively, told from her present as a thirty-three-year-old working as a social media consultant. The final perspective belongs to Szu’s mother, Amisa. Amisa is middle-aged in 2003 but her part of the story, told in third person, begins in the late 1960s, and narrates how she moved from a small village on a mangrove swamp to eventually star as a B-grade horror film actress in the cult 70s series, Ponti!
Despite these three narrative streams, the novel really feels like Szu’s story: it is her teenage hood in the early naughties that forms the bulk of the novel and also the narrative crux. Both Amisa’s and Circe’s stories feel like they serve to mirror, complement and develop Szu’s struggles and progressions. One of the strongest images I have from the novel is of the soupy-aired house that Szu lives in with her now withholding, vicious mother and her Aunt Yunxi. The duo run a business as spiritual mediums, conversing with spirits and gods.
The way Teo manages interchange between different timeframes is a real strength. The temporal shifts and the ease with which they are handled seem to intermingle each woman’s experience, showing how perspectives are curdled by past agonies and future dreams. Screens, memories, and movie theatres serve as conduits for deeper emotional reckonings and judgements. Not only do we feel Amisa’s squirming despair from her own story and from the daily crises she engenders in her daughter Szu (“One day I will learn to be as expertly cruel as she is”), but we see her as the film
Narratives that straddle multiple timeframes or conjure up more than one lived experience often run the risk of being narrated vaguely, or in a voice that’s plump with the ephemeral dreaminess of an author caught in a world of their own creation. The instinct must be irresistible: if you as a writer have created a new space, surely you should also dictate the terms and tonality that describes that world in whatever way you choose. Ponti, thankfully, evades all of that. Teo observes her world acutely and sets it out with precision. Her attention to detail is fine and surprising, often throwing in devices that operate as eclectically as the world she is evoking. Her similes twang and are masterful: pop star Jolene is “dumb as bricks”; the ponytailed heads of lovesick girls “tilt like flowers dense with nectar”; Circe guards her brother Leslie “like a dagger”. I am hard pressed to think of a better description of it-girl cliques than this:
Clara Chua, Lee Meixi and Trissy Kwok are a three-headed vision of stem-glass necks and crystal-clear skin, branded satchels and understated sexual experience. They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles. They are unknowable and invincible. Their limpid eyes judge and glint. Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulders like a rifle sling.
Note, too, Teo’s skill in naming her character: the names ‘Clara Chua', ‘Lee Meixi' and ‘Trissy Kwok’ hum with the homely beauty and acerbic cruelty of this type of girl. This aptitude for naming recurs again and again: later on in the novel, Circe attends a training session at work on initiative and leadership skills with a chubby, oily instructor with a cowlick called ‘Clarents Goh Bok Tin’. Faultless.
These details, and the humour with which they are presented, make the world of Ponti accessible to the reader. Teo describes common experiences we can all relate to – the hours spent drifting around malls after school, the listlessness of excursions, working on something meaningless in your dead-end job – with a care that suggests that these, too, are experiences that are important and they should be honoured: just as much as heroic action or more obvious plot points. The exactitude of her language is a tart complement to the steamy, latent feelings and environs of humid Singapore, ripe with spontaneous mists and spells of pollution haze. Characters sweat and drift in stupors, keep private counsel with themselves and brood with unseen objectives. Life seems to be in a perennial state of flux and disintegration: the heat makes things stagnate and rot just as Szu, Circe, and Amisa bathe themselves in memories and visions of their own creations: “Szu floats in the murky brine of my memory.” Helpfully, Teo’s sassy humour and clarity of style keep everything lifted.
Though there are a lot of things to admire about this novel, one of the things that impressed me most was how definitively the spectral world, or world of energy we don’t understand, is treated as evident, as a matter of course. Apparitions appear without justification; strange people covered in oil emerge from the forest; several characters have faces that are simultaneously young and old. Aunt Yunxi speaks of energy, anticipates the future, communes with the spirits. It feels telling in a world so marked by uncertainty and where rationales are so unclear.
Softer still is the emphasis Teo puts on the effects of hereditary damage and the importance of being kind to one another. Being a young person, or any person, can feel full of estrangement. Ponti, at its heart, seems most urgently to want to focus on negotiating kindness in a thoroughly mysterious and unsettling world.
Anything that encourages empathy in this manner, particularly in light of the unscrupulousness and irrationality that we can inflict upon each other, should be celebrated. Rather than making ourselves hoarse and broody chasing each other in circles with daft insults about who in class has scaly legs, who does or doesn’t have a partner, who is smarmy or feels things too intensely, we should be focusing on things irrevocably more important: how to forgive, how to rise above being spurned, how to develop empathy even when presented with discomfort.
Ponti leaves the work of other young writers panting hard in its shifting, sweaty wake. It feels as alive as a ghoul and as permanent as love, and marks the emergence of a sure and versatile new voice.
Jacinta Mulders is an Australian writer based in London. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, and The Bohemyth, as well as in other publications.