Is this really a debut novel? If so, then Sharlene Teo is a name to watch out for. It is very well written but is also orginal, evocative and clever. There are three strong female characters and the narrative moves backwards, with each one giving their story at a particular time. Szu at 16 is unhappy and alienated from her school friends until she meets Circe and forms an intense friendship with her. Amisa, Szu’s mother, was for a short time a beautiful actress and starred in a horror film, Ponti, which has become a cult movie, although she is now working as a medium and is ill. Teo handles three time frames brilliantly – Amisa in the 1970s working in a cinema and moving into the film world, Szu and Circe as teenage friends in 2003, and Circe’s life 17 years later when she is a social media consultant working on the remake of “Ponti”.
It is partly a coming of age story but feels much deeper than that as each character struggles with setbacks, loneliness and tragedy. The setting of Singapore is vividly evoked with descriptive passages where you feel the heat and atmosphere. Just occasionally I felt that the author’s undoubted flair for the description of place and character took precedence over the story telling. I was very impressed by how multi-layered a novel it is and by how the different stories are blended. Plenty here for reading groups to discuss too.
Sharlene Teo is a fascinating new voice in literary fiction and it will be interesting to see what she does next.
Berwyn Peet 4/4
Ponti by Sharlene Teo
Picador 9781509855315 hbk Apr 2018