LET'S GIVE IT UP FOR GIMME LAO!
By Sebastian Sim
Epigram Books/Paperback/ 320 pages/$24.90 (excluding GST)/ Major bookstores
On the surface, it sounds like Gimme Lao, the protagonist of author Sebastian Sim's debut English-language novel, has got it all.
Born on the day of Singapore's independence to doting parents, he grows up healthy and happy, enters university, gets married and raises a family.
He rises to become a department head at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, steering the country through the Sars crisis and is groomed to join politics.
Into what sounds like a boring have-it-all success story, Sim throws a few spanners in the works. A spiteful nurse denies Lao the chance to be independent Singapore's first newborn and he is saddled with a ridiculous name, thanks to his babysitter, who tries to name him after actor Sidney Poitier.
Later in life, he is misled by his girlfriend into a marriage of convenience, robbed of glory at work and has his political ambitions crushed.
Sim has crafted a richly layered, rip-roaring tale that narrates and critiques Singapore's great leap from Third World to First.
Significant historical events make their way into the book - from a 1960s Government ban on men having long hair to the bubble tea craze of the 1990s.
The book is packed with scenes of comedy gold, narrated by Sim with an acerbic wit that parallels the genius of writer Adrian Tan's 1988 sleeper hit, The Teenage Textbook.
When Lao gets into the newspapers for doing well in school, his caregiver theorised that "early exposure to the stimulation of toasted sambal chilli might have triggered brain development".
Sim surfaces with finesse and heart the underbelly of Singapore, tackling issues from domestic abuse and underaged sex to homosexuality and the responsibility of caring for the elderly and disabled.
These are fleshed out through a supporting cast of colourful characters. Their life stories are at once humorous and heartbreaking - from the brooding gangster nicknamed Black Cougar to Lao's free-spirited schoolmate Omala, who denounces him for outing their gay literature teacher.
Readers will root for Lao's mother, the tenacious and enterprising Mary Lao, who starts selling insurance to sponsor a class excursion when Lao is disinvited to a play date by a parent.
She parlays her initial success into a career, displacing her mousy husband to become the main breadwinner.
"One ought to always question the boundaries," she tells her son and grandson.
In a revealing moment, the shrewdly pragmatic Wei Wen, who eventually marries Lao, tells him during their courtship: "You're my ticket to my Singapore Dream. I expect to escape public transport by the time you make registrar and to escape public housing once you start your practice."
The seemingly money-grubbing statement belies a tragic backstory - Wei Wen shoulders the life-long responsibility of caring for her younger brother, who has Down syndrome.
Sim, who has previously written Chinese wuxia novels, is no less skilled in English - his prose zips along breezily, except for the occasional awkward expression ("His throne of awesomeness was usurped").
For the most part, he controls the pace well, although the ending feels a tad rushed.
Finding a book that makes one laugh or cry is exceedingly rare these days.
Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! is a heartfelt Singapore story that is likely to make its readers do both.
Lee Jian Xuan