I was particularly interested to read this book after listening to the author speak at the recent Hastings Litfest. She has experience of life in a colonial set-up with maids, which forms the backdrop to this intriguing and sometimes difficult novel. Tabatha said she had based the main characters on an mixture of ‘real’ people she knew but also wanted to challenge the basic stereotypes that she still feels are being lived out in that country.

Near the west coast of Singapore lies the leafy enclave of Sabre Green (such a place even with a different name exists) which is a haven for wealth and luxury in one of the richest and most fast developing (especially in property) countries in the world. It is also one of the cleanest and perhaps after reading this if you visit you may well question just what (or, more importantly, who) is responsible for those immaculate streets and houses.

Because beneath the glamour lies the insidious truth of the country’s maid culture, where a woman’s life is cheap, often taken from poor villages or islands (a lot of Filipino young girls are involved). Singapore and other related countries have a complex and quite ritualised system of Foreign Domestic Worker employment. The chapter where the young Filipino girls arrive and are taken by dirty cramped van to sleep on the floor in a basement before being taken to their jobs is heartbreaking.

The novel is in short chapters emphasising and making the writing tight and effective, from some of those in Sabre Green. We hear from a maid and an employer, of village girl and city dweller. There is Lucille, Ma’am Leslie, Shammi and Madame Eunice all striving, each in their own way to exist in a country whose pristine exterior belies the dark human shadows underneath.

It is often candid and cruel (truely horrific violence is inflicted – and not just on the maids) and I have to say women as much as men show cruel streaks which are very sadistic. The ability to look away is always there but there is also hope. For from unexpected quarters comes care, generosity and help at huge times of distress.

Men don’t come out of the stories well and it is across all cultures – many of which see the man in the household as the master anyway. Children are involved in seeing and even participating in the cruelty so be prepared for some shocking scenes. But although the author delves into the depths of despair (and from hearing her talk about her own mental health struggles she speaks with a convincing voice) the differences ultimately draw the women and stories together.

But when we see Singapore in all its sleek clean lines and skyscrapers are we still allowing the country to sweep such treatment under the carpet?

An excellent personal read about a country with which I was not familiar (although I spent some of my very early childhood in Malaysia and had an ammah [maid] even in our relatively meagre home with my father in the RAF) – to see such backwardness in the 21st century is of concern so I learnt a lot.

Book clubs will immediately engage with the characters and although a brutal narrative short chapters and a fine focus on resolutions to the issues make it worth continuing to the end.

It is also important and interesting to note that this book was the creation of three writers. They started a company to look for a better deal for both writers and readers for new literature. On the Unbound website authors share the ideas for the books they want to write directly with their readers. If enough readers support the book by pledging for it in advance, they produce a beautifully bound special subscribers’ edition and distribute a regular edition and e-book to other outlets. This seems a new way of publishing but is actually a very old idea (Samuel Johnson funded his dictionary this way). The internet builds a writer a network of patrons (who are named in the book). If you like Tabatha’s book or want to join this great idea you can visit unbound.com with a £5 discount on your first pledge by typing STIRLING19 in the promo code box when you check out. Tabatha and others are paving the way for an excellent idea to ensure writers are not left out of the loop by corporations and giant publishing houses so good luck to them!

Philipa Coughlan 4/4

Bitter Leaves by Tabatha Stirling
Unbound Digital 9781789650204 pbk Mar 2019