A well-crafted tale of two relationships

Life cover story on O Thiam Chin, winner of the first Epigram Books Fiction Prize last year.
Life cover story on O Thiam Chin, winner of the first Epigram Books Fiction Prize last year.PHOTO: ST FILE

There is no obvious emotional climax in Singapore author O Thiam Chin's prize-winning and first full- length novel, not even when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami crashes down on its characters, taking one of them into the ocean's bosom.

Instead, his latest effort is an exquisitely crafted, slow-burn tale that dives deep into the past of his four protagonists, to trace how their lives first intertwine, then unravel, up to the point when calamity erupts.

The emotional payoff is potent.

An accomplished short-story writer with five collections under his belt, the author teases out unfulfilled desire and quiet desperation from his characters' lives - a break-up gone awry, an untimely sexual awakening, miscarriages swept under the rug, just to name a few.

The novel opens rather unconventionally, with an ending, as Ai Ling's waterlogged body washes ashore on a tiny island south-west of Phuket. In the ensuing chapters, the reader returns to scenes of scavenging animals picking apart her body, revealing it to be pregnant.

The decomposition parallels an insidious rot that spreads through the book's two relationships.

  • FICTION

  • NOW THAT IT'S OVER

    By O Thiam Chin

    Epigram Books/Paperback/

    272 pages/$26.64/Major bookstores

    4/5 stars

Ai Ling and Wei Xiang meet by chance at a school reunion in their mid-20s, fall in love and marry. But trouble brews when she keeps an early pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage from him. The tragedy is further intensified by a revelation later that Wei Xiang's family was torn apart by a miscarriage as well.

The couple are haunted by the spectre of their deceased child: A mysterious local boy who seems to know them from another life befriends Ai Ling and tries to save her from doom, then later tries to lead Wei Xiang to her body.

Cody and Chee Seng, on the other hand, are gay partners who drift apart after almost a decade together, the decline hastened by the return of a former lover.

O meticulously sketches out the dynamics and emotional baggage of each relationship - Cody and Chee Seng cope with their conflict by succumbing to carnal temptation, while Ai Ling's miscarriage tears away at her, causing feelings of hollowness and incompletion.

In swift, vivid strokes, he depicts scenes of death and destruction in Phuket, as Wei Xiang hunts desperately for his wife in the aftermath, with the town of Patong "looking like a huge debris-clogged swamp".

He suffuses his prose with recurring motifs of the sea. His characters also echo the sea's traits - enigmatic, tempestuous and churning with a perpetual restlessness.

At one point, Cody imagines "thoughts running through his father's mind, into places only he would know - dark, oceanic places, teeming with life".

It is perhaps life's greatest tragedy that all we ever know of people, even up to their dying day, are the surface glimpses they choose to show us, O seems to say.

Now That It's Over is no easy read - it is a layered and meditative novel that takes time to unpack. But read deeper into it and it will draw you in and pull you under, much like the pulsing, inescapable sea.

Lee Jian Xuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'A well-crafted tale of two relationships'. Print Edition | Subscribe