“Why should I feel sorry for her when she doesn’t feel sorry for me? It could be the family motto, this question, something to emblazon on their coat of arms, except that not one of them has noticed how often the others ask it.”
This is a fantastic book with a tragic story, about a well-off Indo-Malaysian family slowly tearing each other apart. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic design and bright colors of the cover; this is a dark and complicated novel that offers plenty of sympathy but little hope for its damaged characters.
The book begins in 1980, with a teenaged servant being sent home in disgrace with her drunken father. From there the book moves backward in time, tracing how events arrived at this point. Between the recently-deceased grandmother, the older daughter who has transformed from an exuberant girl into a withdrawn teenager interested only in going abroad for college, the younger daughter who talks to ghosts, the parents with their toxic marriage and the uncle who has been banished from the house, there’s a lot to unpack, and Samarasan does so slowly, layer by layer, with close attention to emotional detail.
The mysteries at the center of the story and the non-linear storytelling through which readers can piece them together are compelling. But the characterization – the complexity and psychological insight with which each character is drawn – is what really elevates this book above the rest. The book is full of flawed characters hurting each other, but the reader comes to understand where each of them is coming from and why they react the way they do. We get to know these people and their relationships with each other so well, and they are so three-dimensional and realistic, that it’s hard to believe they don’t exist in real life.
But the book goes beyond just the family’s life, delving into class divisions and racial politics in Malaysia, where ethnic Malays are privileged over the large Chinese and Indian populations. It is a history not without violence – though thankfully not overdone for shock value here, as some authors are tempted to do – and I learned a lot about Malaysia from reading this book. The author also shows a keen understanding of how money and social class influence people’s behavior.
So I have little criticism, except that I never quite believed the father’s choice of
and the book did take me around 50 pages to get into. The language is lyrical and seemed a little overly stylized until I came to trust that the author knew what she was doing. Once I finished though, I found myself flipping back to read sections of it again.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who loves reading about complicated characters and relationships and who doesn’t require well-defined heroes and villains. It was a treat to read, and I look forward to more from this author!