Book review: Something strange in the neighbourhood in Sandi Tan's Lurkers

Sandi Tan's second novel is pretty bonkers.
Sandi Tan's second novel is pretty bonkers.PHOTOS: CHRIS BERNABEO, SOHO PRESS

Fiction

LURKERS

By Sandi Tan

Soho Press/ Hardcover/ 312 pages/ $41.95/ Available here

4 out of 5

Strange things are afoot on Santa Claus Lane.

Termites teem in the walls of an old house. A naked girl with long hair slams herself against windows at night. People lurk - on lawns, in cars, behind curtains.

Singapore-born author Sandi Tan's second novel is pretty bonkers. It veers from genre to genre - from campy horror to crime thriller to coming-of-age drama - like a getaway driver manically filtering lanes.

Tan populates her suburb of Alta Vista, California, with kooky characters. There is ageing horror novelist Raymond van der Holt; the taciturn Kate Ireland, a Vietnam War orphan adopted into American suburbia; and the Parks, a Korean immigrant family.

One day, Mr Park, a pastor and aspiring writer of abysmal stories, kills himself. His wife decides their teenage daughters Rosemary and Miracle need to be shipped back to South Korea. Distraught, the girls resort to increasingly hare-brained schemes to preserve their Californian lifestyle.

Rosemary, 15, is experiencing a sexual awakening and has embarked on a strange relationship with her charismatic, sinister teacher Mr Z, who gives her rides home and coaches her on kissing.

The sheer chaotic energy of Lurkers belies a considerable degree of control and structure.

Tan, who is acclaimed for her 2018 documentary Shirkers - no relation to Lurkers, at least not at surface level - dwells on adolescence, which is here less an age than a state of mind.

Her adults are trapped in patterns they struggle to mature beyond; her teenagers tread the heady waters of transgression. Loops repeat; names and signs are replicated in uncanny echoes never fully explained.

Tan swerves between hilarity - Mira, reacting to impending Korean exile, slides off the kitchen chair melodramatically "like a jellyfish" and declares, "Leave me alone. I need to pray" - and abject horror.

Kate, in puberty, has recurring nightmares of an airplane crash she has suppressed from her conscious memory, of "the headless body of a little girl seesawing, half in, half out of an airplane window".

All this blood, sex and violence builds to a bombastic climax that nearly knocks the whole excursion off the rails. Yet Lurkers has a surprisingly endearing ending you wish you could see more of. This slice of sunshine noir possesses its own demented charm.

If you like this, read: Ponti by Sharlene Teo (Pan Macmillan, 2018, $18.95, available here), about three women in Singapore: 16-year-old outcast Szu, her acerbic best friend Circe and Szu's mother Amisa, an ailing beauty who once starred in a series of cult horror films as a pontianak.

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