Thursday, 10 May 2018

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Ponti by Sharlene Teo
Published in the UK by Picador in April 2018.

Featured in WorldReads: Singapore

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2003. Singapore. Friendless and fatherless, sixteen-year-old Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, once a beautiful actress and now a hack medium performing séances with her sister in a rusty house. When Szu meets the privileged, acid-tongued Circe, they develop an intense friendship which offers Szu an escape from her mother’s alarming solitariness, and Circe a step closer to the fascinating, unknowable Amisa.

Seventeen years later, Circe is struggling through a divorce in fraught and ever-changing Singapore when a project comes up at work: a remake of the cult seventies horror film series ‘Ponti’, the very project that defined Amisa’s short-lived film career. Suddenly Circe is knocked off balance: by memories of the two women she once knew, by guilt, and by a past that threatens her conscience . . .

Told from the perspectives of all three women, Ponti by Sharlene Teo is an exquisite story of friendship and memory spanning decades. Infused with mythology and modernity, with the rich sticky heat of Singapore, it is at once an astounding portrayal of the gaping loneliness of teenagehood, and a vivid exploration of how tragedy can make monsters of us.

Ponti was a strange book for me. I enjoyed it as I was actually reading it, but struggled to remember exactly what was going on when I set the book aside. Individual scenes are vividly written, but I didn't manage to truly immerse myself into the story which was a shame. I think part of the problem is that the women who most fascinated me, Amisa and Aunt Yunxi, are the ones about whom we find out the least. Amisa, as an actress, portrayed a mythical monster and her role in this novel is also to be a monstrous mother. I wanted to see more of how this transformation came about rather than concentrating on the effect on her daughter. Szu, Amisa's daughter, is alienated from her classmates by her situation at home until she develops a brief, intense friendship with the new girl at school, Circe.

Ponti explores these situations of connectedness and isolation from various perspectives. Szu sees a steady stream of desperate people visiting Yunxi and Amisa for supernatural guidance, not realising just how shattered these women's lives are. We flit between the three narratives in Ponti which is sometimes confusing although I liked that each has a distinctive voice. I think Ponti is a book that would benefit from repeated reads as it has veiled layers. I should also probably brush up on my scant knowledge of Singaporean film-making and the horror genre in general. I understood a smattering of references, but am sure that the majority passed me by.

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  1. Well that sounds interesting, and has a really pretty cover. Great review!

  2. What a shame as from your description it sounds like the scenes came to life but the overall arc was lacking.

  3. I have to say that I don't think that this one is for me. It sounds like it was well written but missing something that would have pulled everything together.

    1. Ponti just didn't completely click with and I can't put my finger on why not. A shame as others - Ian McEwan included - are raving about it

  4. That's quite a bright colour for the cover and I am glad for this! I really like the sound of this being set in Singapore because I've never read a book there. But this doesn't sound so memorable... If you couldn't even remember it while reading it!

    1. This was a weird one. I enjoyed it, but the scenes didn't stick with me when I set the book down. Maybe I couldn't identify strongly enough with the characters?