Book Of The Month

Mother with a dark secret

Balli Kaur Jaswal's multi-layered family drama cleverly explores through food the tensions between modernity and tradition and the relations between mother and daughter

FICTION

SUGARBREAD By Balli Kaur Jaswal

Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 280 pages/ $24.90/Major bookstores and epigrambooks.sg/ 4 stars

To 10-year-old Pin, her mother Jini has always been her greatest mystery.

Jini guards her emotions and her past fiercely, even as she burns with a self-hatred her inquisitive daughter can never quite understand.

"Promise me that you will not become like me," she warns Pin repeatedly. An explanation never follows.

For years, Pin contents herself with looking for clues in her mother's cooking. She finds traces of Jini's moods in her food: cabbage leaves in sweet coconut gravy mean she is feeling mellow, red chilli powder is a sign of anger.

But Jini's past remains a secret until her conservative mother Kulwant moves in.

Balli Kaur Jaswal does not flinch from writing about racism.

Full of contempt for her only daughter, Kulwant insists on tradition. A religious portrait, usually kept in the storeroom, goes up on the living room wall and Jini soon starts making roti for every meal. She stops cooking non-Punjabi dishes which her mother sees as vulgar and disgusting.

As the plot unfolds, tension mounts in the family and dark secrets come to light.

With Sugarbread, Singapore writer Balli Kaur Jaswal has woven a complex family drama, smartly exploring through food the tensions between modernity and tradition and the relations between mother and daughter.

The book also has a generous historical scope, alternating between Pin's perspective in the 1990s and that of a teenage Jini in the 1960s. In doing so, Jaswal creates two distinct Singapores, both fully realised and thrumming with life.

Istanbul-based Jaswal is an author to watch. Sugarbread was a finalist for the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize last year, and is good as, or even better than O Thiam Chin's winning book, Now That It's Over.

It is a powerful story woven out of many different threads, among them prejudice, family, the clash of generations and individual versus communal identity. It also fills an important gap in Singapore literature with its portrayal of the Punjabi-Sikh community.

Given the quality of her work, it is gratifying to hear that this year, she nabbed a two-book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins. The first book, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, is due out next year.

Singapore prides itself on its multi-cultural identity, but in Sugarbread, Pin, who is a Punjabi-Sikh girl in a Christian school, learns painful lessons about the pressure to conform.

Jaswal does not flinch from writing about racism and how it hurts, even if it is born of ignorance instead of malice. For example, Pin's kara, a steel bracelet worn at all times by Sikhs, becomes a bone of contention.

She is forbidden from joining the neighbourhood boys for soccer with it on. In school, prefects book her for "wearing jewellery to school".

When Pin and her best friend Farizah, a Malay-Muslim girl in an extra-long pinafore and socks pulled all the way up her legs, are uninvited from a classmate's party, they are told: "No fanatics allowed."

As she struggles between staying true to her traditions and a hostile, uncomprehending wider world, she is also trying to solve the mystery of her mother's reticence.

In a book that is written with such nuance and sensitivity, the heavy- handed foreshadowing of Jini's secret past comes across as a little too jarring. Well before Jawal pulls the big reveal, you probably would have figured it out all on your own, making the revelation, tragic as it is, an unsatisfactory one.

But Sugarbread is overall a complex, layered story worth multiple re-reads. At its heart, it is a tale of two daughters yearning for their mothers' recognition, but it goes beyond being a personal story, weaving in Singapore's growth and the idiosyncrasies - both good and bad - of its society.

If you like this, read: Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal (Epigram Books, 2016, $24.90, Books Kinokuniya), which follows a Punjabi family in Singapore from the 1970s to the 1990s and parallels their story with the nation's development. This is the updated edition of the novel, which was first published in 2013 by Australia's Sleepers Publishing.


FICTION

BARKSKINS By Annie Proulx

Fourth Estate/Paperback/ 717 pages/ $23.97/Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

When European settlers first wandered through the vast, pristine forests of the New World, they never thought all those trees could ever be exhausted.

Likewise, the size of American author Annie Proulx's astounding new epic will be daunting to many, sprawling as it does across 300 years of deforestation.

But you will finish this hefty tome faster than you thought you would, driven by its inexorable pace, and having exhausted its plenty, find yourself at a loss.

Proulx, a veteran of the Western frontier narrative renowned for her mastery of the short story, is not known for her prodigiousness in writing.

At more than 700 pages, Barkskins breaks this mould and is, for the most part, handled deftly without being long-winded, although the final few chapters test one's patience.

It charts the generations that spring from two penniless Frenchmen who migrate in the 17th century to New France, later Canada.

Indentured to a cruel landowner, they become wood-cutters, or barkskins, chipping away at a forest that seems impenetrable and practically infinite.

Their master describes it as "the forest of the world", with "no end and no beginning".

One of the workers is mild, long-suffering Rene Sel, who is forced to marry his master's mistress Mari, a native Mi'kmaw healer.

With her, he fathers a line of mixed-blood descendants, through whose eyes readers experience the slow, awful degradation of New France's indigenous peoples.

Massacred by white settlers, forced out of their traditional hunting grounds, they must turn for survival to chopping down the very trees they were taught to revere.

Sel's colleague, the wily Charles Duquet, escapes their master and founds a successful timber trading enterprise.

He adopts orphan boys to supplement his own children and their heirs become one of the driving forces behind the depletion of Canada and North America's forests.

Their avarice does not stop there. The novel takes us across the world to China, New Zealand and Brazil, a fatalistic nod to how the forests of each will be plundered in turn.

Proulx displays a stunning degree of historical research. She is determined to furnish the most minute details of a lost world her readers will never experience.

Chief among these are the forests so diminished in the present that their past selves are fantasy worlds - Canadian pine trees tall as cathedrals loosing billows of citrine pollen in summer, grey New Zealand kauri like the legs of monster elephants.

Proulx chooses to interweave the Sel and Duquet chapters, with one chapter devoted to each generation, two if she especially likes them.

With this pace that moves by generational leaps, characters die in droves, often abruptly and with violence.

People are felled by fire, cholera, infection, shipwrecks and the list goes on.

In one brief but memorable description, one man has all his orifices sewn up, is left to swell over a few days and finally explodes.

Entire lives run their course in the brief span of a chapter. But perhaps this is how human life might appear from the perspective of an ancient tree.

Proulx uses this method to varying success as it is hard to be truly invested in characters whose lives flicker past like images in a zoetrope.

One or two stand out, such as the indomitable Lavinia Duke, who inherits Duquet's timber empire in the mid-19th century. She leaves the reader torn between admiration and disgust, a feminist paragon in the patriarchal logging trade, yet one whose ruthlessness wipes out the forests of Michigan.

The Lavinias of the novel aside, Proulx's efforts at characterisation are uneven. At one point, she races through a few generations of Sels so quickly that their names leave no impression.

It is this thin attention to characters that is the undoing of the novel's ending.

Proulx seems to want her novel to end on a note of hope, as the final generations of Sels and Duquets come together in a last-ditch effort to salvage the environmental damage wrought by their ancestors.

But these characters lack the engaging intensity of their forebears and their words descend into preachiness. We have ceased to be invested in their story, for all that it is our own.

So Proulx's ending rings hollow, betraying the hopelessness that we teeter on the verge of ecological collapse and cannot make ourselves step back.

If you like this book, read: Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola, a 20-volume series that charts the rise and fall of the Second French Empire through the generations of one family. Try Germinal (Random House, 2010, $27.79, Books Kinokuniya), his seminal work on the brutal mining industry as it is shaken up by a violent strike.

Olivia Ho


FICTION

THE GIRLS By Emma Cline

Random House/Paperback/355 pages/$29.95/ Major bookstores / 3 stars

Murder, a Charles Manson-like cult and girls gone bad.

Emma Cline could not have picked a more seductive mix of dark ingredients for her debut novel, but The Girls ends up more bland than bold, let down by flimsy, frustrating characterisation and scatterbrained storytelling.

It is 1969 and all 14-year-old Evie Boyd wants is to be noticed.

At home, she is invisible. Her father has taken up with his much younger secretary and her mother emerged from the shambles of her marriage flitting from fad to fad and from man to man.

Evie turns to the outside world for attention, but fails to find it in her tiny circle of friends.

Then, one day, a group of girls a few years older than her catches her eye: "I looked up because of the laughter and kept looking because of the girls... I knew they were different from everyone else in the park."

In her loneliness and desperation, she becomes fixated with them and, when their paths cross again and again, goes all out to win their favour.

That marks her induction into their commune. Evie spends her summer with the girls in a shabby ranch, caught up in a contest for the attention of the commune's charismatic leader, Russell.

It is with him and his toxic magnetism that Cline shines. He gives Evie the unconditional acceptance she so desperately craves.

"Look at yourself," he commands her. When she shies away, he insists: "Look at your body. It's not some stranger's body... It's you. It's Evie. Nothing in you but beauty."

But this is a man for whom kindness is strategic. He is a needy and manipulative "expert in female sadness", a grown man playing God in a world he has created out of girls selected for their weakness.

He knows when to dole out affection and attention - and when to snatch them back - to get what he wants. And when his dreams of becoming a famous rock star crumble, what he wants is the death of a close friend who promised him fame.

With Russell, Cline successfully explores the allure of men like Charles Manson, who collected followers and, in 1969, instructed them to kill seven people.

But her treatment of everything else falls short.

The other characters in Russell's commune never quite pan out and are barely examined. Life in the cult, beyond the creepy relations Russell has with his girls, is explored in a shallow way with little excitement and the build-up to the brutal killings is almost half- hearted.

If you like this, read: Arcadia by Lauren Groff (Hachette Books, 2012, $17.95, Books Kinokuniya), a book about a New York commune that has great world-building and a solid cast of characters.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh


FICTION

SARONG PARTY GIRLS By Cheryl Lu-lien Tan

HarperCollins/Paperback/320 pages/ From $24.61/Major bookstores/ 3.5 stars

At once crass, crude and cynical, this debut novel by New York- based Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-lien Tan is a no-holds-barred portrait of the party-loving women here who trawl the nightclubs in hopes of snagging a sugar daddy.

The book is narrated in Singlish by the protagonist, Jazeline "Jazzy" Lim Boon Huay, a spunky, straight- talking Ah Lian from the heartland who works as a newspaper editor's secretary.

With her gal pals Imo and Fann in tow, Jazzy storms the clubs to score a rich Westerner husband, as well as the "number one champion status symbol - a half ang moh kid. The Chanel of babies".

You can tell by the quote that Tan's style is a mix of local patois and Class A b***hiness - which makes her character an engaging one, whether she is cursing a pack of Ah Bengs at Marina Square or chugging drinks at Holland Village.

Jazzy's heart and humour recall the magic that made Tan's 2011 memoir, A Tiger In The Kitchen, a hit.

Readers will relate to her pragmatic, working-class girl observations.

"Go to a hotel to eat chicken rice? I whole life never hear something so stupid before!" she declares at one point.

In some parts, the Singlish feels awkward and off-putting when used inappropriately. Terms such as "fasterly" and "rubba" are seldom heard in daily conversation. Rarely does an English-speaking woman refer to herself as "guniang" (Mandarin for lady) so frequently.

Tan takes a bleak view of the transactional nature of relationships in Singapore, a modern society consumed by materialism and stratified by class.

Jazzy and her friends size up the men they meet based on their postal codes, the cars they drive and the thickness and designer brand of their wallets ("Bottega Veneta. Confirm got potential").

For the married and ineligible, their worth is measured by how many rounds of drinks they can buy in a night out.

Women are treated with equal contempt and misogyny - the book is rife with scenes of social escorts being paraded before wealthy businessmen like poultry in a market, which Jazzy witnesses at a high-end KTV lounge.

The book dwells too long on these gratuitously lurid sex scenes and the uplifting ending comes too late. It would have been better had Tan weeded out the excess of male characters and concentrated on fleshing out the more promising vignettes, such as those involving Seng, Jazzy's childhood friend who has loyally stuck by her despite her shenanigans.

Much like the caricatures it parodies, Sarong Party Girls has oodles of style, but is short on substance. It is a fun, frothy read, even if it does little to challenge the sexist status quo.

If you like this, read: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (Random House, 2013, $16.05, Times), the blockbuster novel by Singapore- born author Kwan, which deftly lampoons the excesses and first-world pains of wealthy, entitled Chinese.

Lee Jian Xuan


FICTION

END OF WATCH By Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton/Hardback/351 pages/ $38.95/Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

Retired detective Bill Hodges receives a telephone call from a former colleague informing him of a murder-suicide that he may have a connection with.

A woman and her mother have died and the daughter is Martine Stover, who was among the victims of "Mercedes Killer" Brady Hartsfield.

The killer ploughed through a crowd of job-seekers on Marlborough Street in America six years ago with a stolen car. Hodges was on the case, which was not solved.

Stover's death leads Hodges, who now runs an investigative firm, to cross paths with Hartsfield again.

End Of Watch is the third book of Stephen King's trilogy, after Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers, featuring Hodges as its hero.

Readers who are new to the series will find themselves easing into its premise through the eyes of an emergency medical technician who was among the first responders to the massacre that left eight dead and 15 injured.

King proceeds to weave in Hodges' history with Hartsfield's as the novel transitions from a detective tale into the murkier depths of a horror story.

The killer Hartsfield, it turns out, had been an "architect of suicide" who previously sent letters to Hodges, as though he had sniffed out the other man's suicidal thoughts and end-of-watch depression, in an attempt to push him over the edge.

That is, before the maniac landed in a coma and remained in a vegetative state throughout the trilogy's second novel, Finders Keepers. But towards the end of that book, nursing staff reported strange occurrences around him.

First-time readers of the series may take some time to warm up to its characters and their backstories in this third book, but it is a process which pays off eventually.

Although Hartsfield is still confined to Room 217 in a traumatic brain injury clinic at the start of this novel, the tale reels in its readers and King spares no detail on the man's eerie demeanour and chilling recovery.

A doctor has been sneaking Hartsfield experimental drugs thinking he was not going to wake up anyway - a move that takes on a supernatural twist.

While it may sound outlandish, this turn is anything but illogical. It links the dots in a way that fans of King's brand of macabre will probably appreciate.

If you like this, read: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2014, $15.95, Books Kinokuniya). A teenager rides her bike across a bridge into another reality, finding herself stuck in a place where it is always Christmas.

Seow Bei Yi


FICTION

THE LIGHT OF PARIS By Eleanor Brown

The Borough Press/Paperback/306 pages/ $27.97/Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

A tale told from two perspectives, The Light Of Paris is split between the stories of Margie, a wealthy young woman growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC in the early 1920s, and her granddaughter Madeleine, who has also lived a privileged life, but in Magnolia, a pastels-and-pearls town in the American south.

At the start, Madeleine is living in Chicago, the stifled wife of Phillip, a handsome and controlling property developer.

He does not allow her to work because it would imply that he does not make enough money to support her and he discourages her from painting.

Feeling hollow and unhappy, she runs home to Magnolia, ready to blame her mother, her society and her husband for her problems.

Good girl Margie is a much more sympathetic and interesting character who, in her early 20s and with no marriage prospects, is staring down the barrel of spinsterhood when she is asked to chaperone her cousin on a tour of Europe.

Margie embraces the opportunity and, when her cousin abandons her, decides to stay in Paris to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer.

Rather than predictably falling into the company of the literary American expatriate set - Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the like - she meets a group of surrealist painters, lapping up all the romance that Paris has to offer in the 1920s, an era when women had few rights, education or employment opportunities.

Sadly, Madeleine's narrative cannibalises the book.

It is impossible to sympathise with her, a modern, white American woman, whose greatest struggle in life is figuring out what she wants and saying so.

The saving grace of the novel comes from its mother-daughter subplot, which hinges on how the pain, loss and limits of the women's lives are transferred across generations. Madeleine is the latest in a long line of only children born to emotionally distant mothers and it is interesting to see how this creates detachment in some and the desire to please in others.

But author Eleanor Brown does not delve deep enough into this narrative foundation to save a novel whose main appeal is its partial setting in the glitz and romance of 1920s Paris. Its theme about a woman trying to find herself has been done, and done better, before.

If you like this, read: Lessons In French by Hilary Reyl (Simon & Schuster, 2013, $25.62, Books Kinokuniya), a coming-of-age novel about an ambitious young Yale graduate who lands a job as an assistant to a famous photographer in Paris and how she navigates the flamboyant world of the wealthy and artistic.

Lydia Vasko


FICTION

ALL THE MISSING GIRLS By Megan Miranda

Simon & Schuster/Paperback/368 pages/$31.03/ Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

American young adult fiction author Megan Miranda has written her first book aimed at adults and it is a page-turner told backwards.

The unconventional narrative structure is fresh if not revolutionary, and keeps readers hooked on the unfolding story.

Unfortunately, despite its decent pace and plotting, the book suffers from poor characterisation and a pulpy style, so that the novel still remains little more than a high- calorie, forgettable read.

All The Missing Girls begins with Nicolette Farrell returning to her dead-end Mid-West hometown, Cooley Ridge, after her father's health takes a turn for the worse.

Now a counsellor in a Philadelphia school, she had left home earlier to escape a traumatic incident from the past. Her best friend, Corrine, disappeared a decade ago and her whereabouts are still a mystery. But soon after Nic comes home, another girl goes missing: her ex-boyfriend's current paramour, who was also her friends' alibi the night Corrine vanished.

The story is told from Day 15, when the characters are cleaning up the mess of the last two weeks, to Day 1, when Annaleise Carter goes missing. Readers are greeted with a scene of chaos: unsure of what has already happened, which characters are on the move, who can be trusted. It is an effective way to get readers hooked and engaged with the unravelling story.

This time-travelling device also underscores one of Miranda's major themes: that no matter how much we seek to bury the past, it always catches up with us.

That is why - despite the fact that she has cut off contact with her childhood friends or that she is now engaged to a hotshot lawyer - Nic finds herself falling again for her ex-boyfriend, construction worker Tyler. After all, they once shared a bed, but more importantly, they shared some secrets too.

Miranda's novel joins a growing list of books featuring unreliable female narrators with a shady past set in crumbling small towns.

But it does not have the character development of Paula Hawkins' The Girl On The Train or Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. That is because where Hawkins and Flynn succeed in creeping us out about the lengths ordinary people go to harbour secrets, Miranda leaves us with only caricatures.

Nic thinks and talks like a self- indulgent teenager. Which 28- year-old would conceivably indulge in thoughts such as, "Maybe they knew I had seen darker things. That I would understand. Or perhaps they would sense that I am an excellent keeper of secrets. I am"? By its end, the novel feels like an episode of a crime procedural show. If you can forgive the blunt character development, there are still some twists and turns to enjoy.

If you like this, read: The Girl Before by Rena Olsen (Putnam, 2016, $27.29, Books Kinokuniya). It alternates between the past and present lives of Clara Lawson, whose life is upended when armed men break into her house and separate her from her husband and daughters.

Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Mother with a dark secret'. Print Edition | Subscribe