"Eat your sorrow," Ipoh native Yifan recalls her mother telling her. These words resonate throughout Singaporean writer O Thiam Chin's second novel, but more often than not, it is his characters who are eaten away by sorrow in this amorphous elegy on self-destruction and the stories we create of ourselves for each other.
O, who in 2015 won the first Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore's most generous literary award, returned in last year's short- list with this novel about the mysterious Yifan and the two men who try to possess her love.
Yifan is a 24-year-old woman who left her large family in an Ipoh kampung for Singapore, where she works as a helper at a zi char stall.
She acquires, in an almost incidental fashion, two lovers: Derrick, a writer coping with depression and a drug habit, and Tien Chen, a man so obsessed with fire that he burns his own flesh.
FOX FIRE GIRL
By O Thiam Chin
Epigram Books/Paperback/ 384 pages/$26.64/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars
The novel is divided into three sections, the first told from Derrick's point of view, the second Tien Chen's, and the third Yifan's.
The first two sections map unhealthy relationships, as Derrick and Tien Chen try to decipher the inscrutable Yifan through her body, her things or the secrets of her past.
Neither succeeds; instead, she tells each one a different story about why she left Ipoh.
She recounts to Tien Chen how she inadvertently caused the demise of a boy she loved. She tells Derrick she is a fox spirit who can shapeshift into other animals. To the reader, in third person, she gives a completely different version of the tragedy that blighted her youth.
Much like Marcel Duchamp's Modernist masterpiece Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2, Yifan thrives on multiplicity - in the way she loves, in the versions of her past, in how she makes sense of herself.
"Every time I looked at her," thinks Derrick, "I had a sense of something constantly in flux, changing as the light fell on her in different hours."
To define her through singularity, it seems, would be to crush her.
O's prose is uneven in places, lines of startling beauty interspersed with moments of clumsiness, especially some awkwardly written sex scenes over which the emotional flow of the work stumbles.
As the novel ends, Yifan remains detached to the reader, even as he or she gains insight into her mind.
This vacancy of self, along with an unsatisfying backstory that returns to ensnare her, leaves one cold at the close.
One yearns for something more than passive sorrow from O's elusive heroine, for a story in which the fox spirit claws free of her own skin. If you liked this, read: Now That It's Over by the same author (Epigram, 2016, $26.64, Books Kino- kuniya), in which the relationships of two couples from Singapore fall apart against the backdrop of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.