Review

Portraits of fragmented families cut into reader

In this new annual anthology, author Julie Koh brings together short stories from authors across East and South-east Asia.

While the work is diverse, a common thread runs through many of the 19 stories - the unsettled feeling of characters being neither here nor there, caught between two poles.

Refreshingly, for English literature by Asian writers, this does not come in the usual format of East- meets-West.

Instead, the authors draw inspiration from issues such as social class or familial bonds.

In Indonesian author Laksmi Pamuntjak's The Piano Teacher, for example, piano teacher Juin's knowledge of classical music puts her a cut above her high society employers. At the same time, she is merely a salaried employee and hence, beneath them.

  • FICTION

  • BOOKSACTUALLY'S GOLD STANDARD 2016

    Edited by Julie Koh

    Math Paper Press/Paperback/343 pages/$22/BooksActually/3.5/5 stars

For others, such as the nameless main character in Wu I-Wei's The Mountain Road, which is set in Taiwan, the conflict arises when the ghosts of his past haunt the present.

It is, however, the stories dealing with the eternal theme of family that ring the most true.

The authors paint portraits of families fragmented by misunderstanding and parents loving their children in the wrong way, as with Singapore author Balli Kaur Jaswal's Private Places or Tiffany Tsao's Cocooned. These stories transcend any specific culture and - as editor Julie Koh puts it - result in an anthology which "slides a knife into the reader, right to the hilt".

One gripe with this collection is that certain stories lose something in translation, with prose that might have flowed well in Chinese sounding stilted and unnatural.

Despite this flaw, the anthology certainly stands on its own as a unique first attempt that leaves the reader looking forward to next year's edition.

If you like this, read: It Never Rains On National Day by Jeremy Tiang (Epigram Books, 2015, $18.90, BooksActually), a short story collection about overseas Singaporeans and their relationships with home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Portraits of fragmented families cut into reader'. Print Edition | Subscribe