Review

An incisive look at the Singapore heartland

Beauty Queens Of Bishan is Akshita Nanda's sophomore effort.
Beauty Queens Of Bishan is Akshita Nanda's sophomore effort.PHOTO: GIN TAY

FICTION

BEAUTY QUEENS OF BISHAN

By Akshita Nanda
Penguin Random House SEA/Paperback/349 pages/$19.80/Available at bit.ly/BQBishan

4 Stars

Beauty parlours and pageant drama feature in this frothy, feel-good romp set in the heart of Bishan, in which the humour is more than skin deep.

Nanda, a former Straits Times journalist, was shortlisted for the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize for her debut novel Nimita's Place, which dealt with sobering topics such as immigration, discrimination and the 1947 Partition of India.

Her sophomore effort trades historical heft for comic chops, yet finds substance in the superficial world of skincare, selfies and society gossip.

In Bishan, 13 small beauty parlours share the kind of peaceful co-existence where they sun their towels on racks outside and order in tea and blueberry waffles mid-facial from the drinks stall next door.

All this is upended when celebrity stylist April Chua decamps from Orchard Road to set up her own swanky salon, D'Asthetique, in their midst. She proceeds to try and control her competitors through the neighbourhood association, but Gurpreet Kaur, the plus-size owner of Monty Beauty Spa, refuses to take this lying down.

Their battleground: beauty pageant Grand Glam Singapore, where April's contestant, television soap star and yummy-mummy influencer Candy Kang, will face off against Gurpreet's candidate, high-flying lawyer Tara Chopra.

 
 
 

The book is clearly meant to be marketed to overseas readers.

Two-and-a-half pages are devoted to describing the atmosphere and amenities of the Bishan heartland as if one were advertising real estate to expatriates.

But thankfully, the myriad cadences of Singaporean English, for which Nanda has a great ear, run unadulterated and largely unannotated.

The writing is taut and bright and the comedy incisive. From the uneasy popularity of skin-whitening treatments to the pressures that society heaps upon mothers, Nanda takes aim at racism, privilege and unrealistic beauty standards.

  • BOOK IT /ON THE MOON WITH AKSHITA NANDA

  • Beauty Queens Of Bishan is Akshita Nanda's sophomore effort.

    Beauty Queens Of Bishan is Akshita Nanda's sophomore effort. PHOTO: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE SEA

  • WHAT: A meet-the-author session with henna and art therapy

    WHERE: The Moon, 37 Mosque Street

    WHEN: Saturday, 3 to 5.30pm

    ADMISSION: $10

    INFO: www.themoon.com.sg

It would have been easy to make the clash between April and Gurpreet a clear-cut conflict between Chinese and Indian, high-and low-SES (socio-economic status), thin and fat - but the novel resists such simplistic caricatures.

Shallow, social media-obsessed Candy seems primed to be the villain, yet her relationship with her dementia-stricken mother and her post-natal struggles cast her in a sympathetic light.

One is reminded of Kitty Pong of Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians trilogy (2013 to 2017), a grasping gold-digger who evolves into a protagonist you wind up rooting for.

All this makes for an enjoyable read, perfect for devouring in a recliner while you wait to get your hair and nails done. Maybe order in a waffle to go with it.

If you like this, read: Annabelle Thong by Imran Hashim (Epigram Books, 2016, $20.22, available at bit.ly/Annabelle_T), in which a Catholic schoolteacher runs away from Singapore to the Sorbonne university in Paris to find liberty and love.


This article contains affiliate links. If you buy through these links, we may earn a small commission.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2020, with the headline 'An incisive look at the Singapore heartland'. Print Edition | Subscribe