Powerful tale of marginality in a home-grown setting

The word "monster" has its origins in the Latin verb monstrare, meaning to "show" or "reveal".

First-time author Nuraliah Norasid fills her ambitious fantasy debut with monsters, but with an eye to revealing what is truly monstrous about the ways in which society suppresses those who fail to fit in.

The novel, which won last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize, is a bold, vital addition to Singapore's sparse fantasy canon.

Through a lushly imagined universe both fantastical and familiar, she delivers a powerful tale of marginality, helmed by a remarkable heroine.

  • FICTION

  • THE GATEKEEPER

    By Nuraliah Norasid

    Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 312 pages/$26.64/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars

On the outskirts of a sleepy village, little Ria shares an idyllic existence with her sister Barani, climbing trees and stuffing caterpillars down the other's baju as pranks. But they are not like other children: Their hair is a mass of living snakes and their gaze can turn people to stone.

After the death of their beloved grandmother, the state threatens to displace the sisters and Ria commits the unthinkable: She petrifies the entire village.

She and Barani are forced to flee to the underground city of Nelroote, a makeshift slum whose inhabitants are outcast races such as the reptilian Scereans or the rock-scaled Tuyunri.

When war comes, Ria steps up to guard the settlement with her gift. For ages, she leads a solitary existence as the keeper of its gates, until Eedric, a young man with a privileged background and a troubled past, stumbles upon Nelroote and falls in love with her.

Ria is the heroine Singaporean fantasy deserves, equal parts steel and softness, pivoting between an endearing vulnerability and a streak of irrepressible violence.

The narrative sings when she is in the driver's seat, particularly in the early days of her village childhood when its diction still carries a mythic, prelapsarian beauty.

The novel's weakest link is Eedric. Despite a tragic back story and a dysfunctional gene that allows him to mutate when threatened, he remains an unlikably shallow figure.

As love interests go, his romance with Ria is not quite believable and borders at times on the predatory.

The true heart of the novel is the bond between Ria and Barani, one that fully fleshes out the squabbles and sacrifices alike of sisterhood, and that gives the story its most heartbreaking moments.

Loving care is evident in the crafting of every facet of Ria's world, from a 600-year history that draws on that of the Malay archipelago to the nuances of its invented language.

The book rewards attention, not just in the main text but also the annexes, in which are hidden a number of Easter eggs. A sequel, hinted at in one such annex, cannot come too soon.

If you liked this, read: Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan (Pushkin Press, 2016, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya). The beautiful prostitute Dewi Ayu returns from the dead in the memorable opening of this sweeping novel, which draws both on the horrors of Indonesian history and its rich folklore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Powerful tale of marginality in a home-grown setting'. Print Edition | Subscribe