THE MAID'S ROOM
By Fiona Mitchell
Hodder & Stoughton/Paperback/ 313 pages/$25.95/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars
Hidden cameras in your room. Banned from the swimming pool in the condominium where you live. Nothing but rice for dinner for days.
British journalist Fiona Mitchell's fiction debut plunges into the claustrophobic existence of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, but injects these difficult stories with heart and humour.
British midwife Jules moves to Singapore when her husband is posted there for work, but finds herself out of place in the gossipy community of expatriate wives.
She forms a connection instead with two sisters from the Philippines, Dolly and Tala.
Dolly, a beautiful, aspiring baker, works as a domestic helper for Jules' neighbour, the neurotic, self-absorbed Amber. Although she is devoted to Amber's sons, she dearly misses the young daughter she left behind in the Philippines.
Tala, who is nearly 50 and has years of experience as the help, is juggling a double life. She works for a Singaporean woman who illegally sends her out to clean other houses while taking a cut of her pay. In her downtime, she secretly runs the no-holds-barred blog Maidhacker, posting sassy comebacks to online maid-bashers.
Much of the book's vivacity comes from irreverent Tala, who pushes back against the image of the maid as a submissive victim. "You look like Michael Jackson," she blurts out to an expatriate she cleans for, upon glimpsing the woman's failed attempt at haute couture.
But for all her biting commentary, she has a big heart, letting other maids sleep over in her room and sneaking into their employers' homes to retrieve passports that have been locked away. It is this warm sense of sisterhood that brightens what could otherwise have been a very bleak novel.
Mitchell struggles to capture the complex cadences of the way people speak in Singapore. She makes an effort - throwing in a token "lah" at the end of sentences by Singaporeans and replacing "God" with "Gad" for Filipinos - but her characters have a jarring tendency to lapse into British-isms, such as "I love a good nosy at other people's lives" and "piddle". This might make the book easier for people in Britain to understand, but will ring false for readers in Asia.
In the light of the horror stories one regularly reads of maid abuse cases in the news, the book achieves an unrealistically uplifting outcome.
But is that a bad thing? There are many foreign domestic workers in homes across Singapore who doubtless wish for their own fairy-tale ending. Mitchell gives this to them in fiction, at least.
Meanwhile, if enough readers - especially those who hold power over others in their employ - pay attention to these stories from the margins, perhaps reality can one day grasp at the standard of fairy tale.
If you liked this, read: Maid In Singapore by Crisanta Sampang (Marshall Cavendish, 2005, $25.59, used from Amazon.com), a candid, at times quirky, account of the author's life as a domestic worker in 1980s Singapore.