Slice of whimsy edged with despair

Author Yeoh Jo-Ann's winsome debut novel is a confection of serious ingredients iced with whimsy.
Author Yeoh Jo-Ann's winsome debut novel is a confection of serious ingredients iced with whimsy.ST FILE PHOTO



By Yeoh Jo-Ann

Epigram Books/Paperback/234 pages/$26.64/Major bookstores, Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop and

4 stars

In a surprising turn of events, the latest Epigram Books Fiction Prize-winner is a romance novel. It is about a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to eat cake.

In the hands of a more formulaic writer, this would be a romcom with a self-deprecatingly charming hero, his love interest a manic pixie dream girl. But here, the hero is going through a mid-life crisis and his dream girl lives on the streets under a pile of boxes.

Singapore-based Malaysian writer Yeoh Jo-Ann's winsome debut novel is a confection of serious ingredients iced with whimsy.

Its protagonist is Sukhin, a teach-er who times his daily routine with a stopwatch and has somehow managed to get promoted to department head, even though he hates his job so much that he spends lunch breaks hiding in his office from colleagues and students.

One day, an errand brings him into contact with his ex-girlfriend Jinn, a woman from a privileged background who went missing about six years ago. Now she hauls around everything she owns in a suitcase and breaks into a yoga studio to shower.

She will neither say why she is homeless nor tolerate Sukhin swooping in to save her. Instead, they strike up a careful relationship in which she takes him dumpster-diving for vegetables and he brings her cake.

Yeoh writes with deft, dry humour. Sukhin's internal monologues on faculty bureaucracy and the madness of the classroom are hilarious. Jinn, unfortunately, remains more opaque throughout.

There is a heartening awareness of not just English literary classics but the works of Singapore writers. A lovely scene towards the end features a Cyril Wong poem.

This novel is not about the social problem of homelessness per se and those searching for a reform treatise should look elsewhere. Thankfully, nor is it poverty porn. Yeoh treats the homeless characters in the story with dignity, without softening the daily difficulties of their existence.

She is more interested in the unhousing of the mind, the rootless despair of having followed society's script to the letter and still be left twisting in the wind.

There is no great, dramatic resolution to this love story - it is sweet, light and just a shade short of leaving you stuffed. For those who have found their reading of late to be too heavy-going, let them eat this cake.

If you liked this, read: And The Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania de Rozario (Math Paper Press, 2016, $19 before GST, BooksActually), which juxtaposes a dilapidated house, a failing relationship and the bigger question of what it means to have a home in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2019, with the headline 'Slice of whimsy edged with despair'. Print Edition | Subscribe