Book review: Coming-of-age tale that highlights the plight of domestic helpers is full of heart

A Yellow House is worth a read, especially for younger readers who will benefit from a more complex view of the domestic helpers that keep a home running.
A Yellow House is worth a read, especially for younger readers who will benefit from a more complex view of the domestic helpers that keep a home running.PHOTO: MONSOON BOOKS

FICTION

A YELLOW HOUSE

By Karien Van Ditzhuijzen

Monsoon Books/ Paperback/ 368 pages/ $19.80 / Major bookstores

3 stars


Precocious ten-year-old Maya is lonely, bullied, and mourning her late grandmother.

Enter Aunty M, a domestic helper from Indonesia, here to take care of Maya and her baby sister while their mother goes back to work.

The pre-teen is soon wrapped up in the world of Aunty M who, among other things, feeds a starving helper in the same condominium, gives advice to another whose hands bleed from doing the laundry manually, and volunteers at a charity to help down-and-out foreigners on her off-days.

In A Yellow House, first-time novelist Karien Van Ditzhuijzen captures both Maya's coming-of-age and the struggles of women trying to eke out a living in foreign Singapore.

A volunteer with charity Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), the Dutch expat has heard about the plight of hundreds of women working in homes here.

She weaves their stories in House, in the form of domestic workers that Aunty M and Maya encounter and help.

But they are not all sob stories. Aunty M clearly possesses agency as an independent woman blessed with a good command of the English language and, as such, able to keep abreast of manpower laws here and help her fellow sisters.

At the same time, she is able to wield her gifts precisely because her employer, Maya's mother, trusts her and gives her free rein.

In exploring these themes, Van Ditzhuijzen can be rather on-the-nose. The book occasionally reads like a treatise of what laws here should look like - at one point, Aunty M points out that the Manpower Ministry says domestic helpers must have adequate food and appropriate sleeping quarters, but leaves it up to the employers to define.

The author also falls prey to caricaturising her minor characters at times - a fight between Maya's Singaporean mother andBritish father sees the duo labelling the other as "you Singaporeans" and "you ang mohs".

But A Yellow House is still worth a read, especially for younger readers who will benefit from a more complex view of the domestic helpers that keep a home running.

It is a story about love and feminism, in its myriad forms - and full of heart.

If you liked this, read: The Maid's Room by Fiona Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017, $25.95, Books Kinokuniya). This book follows the lives of two Filipina sisters and domestic helpers, telling the stories of helpers in Singapore with heartbreaking detail but also uplifting zest.