Review | Ponti is a great Singaporean novel – compelling, evocative coming-of-age tale and portrait of a nation
Sharlene Teo’s novel, told through the voices of three women and its title short for pontianak – the man-hunting female ghoul of Malay legend – is a book to enjoy line by line, so vivid and spot-on are its descriptions and observations
by Sharlene Teo
Sharlene Teo won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers Award (established in honour of the late London literary agent) in 2016 for an extract from her work-in-progress, Ponti, set in her native Singapore. The UK-based writer’s novel has finally been published.
Ponti (short for pontianak, the man-hunting female ghoul of Malay legend) is part coming-of-age, part dawn-of-death novel. In 2003, as Singapore chokes under the haze produced by forest fires in Indonesia, Szu and the distractingly named Circe are two 16-year-olds who struggle to fit in with their peers, but who find solace in their new, and developing, friendship. Szu’s impossibly beautiful mother, Amisa, is dying.
In her youth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Amisa starred as the Pontianak in three hammy films: Ponti 1, Ponti 2 and Ponti 3. These vanity projects, funded by the director’s wife, flopped, so at 24, Amisa “had three films to her name, but her name didn’t matter”.
Teo can’t have intended it, and she does point out that this is not the cliché of the fame-hungry actress and the sex-hungry powerful man, but the passages concerning Amisa’s relationship with director Iskandar Wiryanto are sure to make readers think of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.
Ponti is told from the perspectives of each of the three women, Szu, Circe, and Amisa.
Szu and Circe are both first-person narrators. Since Amisa dies during the novel, Teo uses the third person to tell her story, which runs from 1968 to 1987. All but one of the chapters from Szu are set in 2003. Circe’s chapters are set in 2020.
Szu is compelling and believable; she is filled with authentic teenage confusion, distress and a sense of specialness. The first chapter is written from her perspective, and through her Teo grabs the reader from the novel’s opening lines: “Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms pressed against a green wall. I am pressing so hard that my fingers ache. I am tethered to the wall by my own shame.”
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Szu is also given the final chapter, set in 2020, and almost at the very end of the book, Teo echoes her opening sentence: “So it’s a hot, horrible earth we are stuck on and it’s only getting worse.” But here it is not an observation born of unmitigated teenage gloom, but one tinged with hope.
In 2020, Circe is a thirty-three-year-old divorcee doing a trendy contemporary job managing the social media accounts of B-list celebs and arts projects. The Ponti films are going to be remade, and Circe is asked to drum up interest in the remakes.
She has had no contact with Szu since soon after Amisa’s death, back in 2003. But working on the Ponti account forces her to confront her memories of Szu and Amisa, and also to examine her own self-centred behaviour back when she was 16.
Even leaving aside all the references to the pontianak, the supernatural seeps through Ponti. Szu grows up surrounded by threatening magic, or faux magic, since Amisa’s post-acting career is as a rackety medium. She works in cahoots with Aunt Yunxi, a woman described as “half woman, half violin. She screeches, she is narrow and stiff.”
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Ponti, filled with vivid and spot-on descriptions, metaphors, and observations, is a novel to enjoy line by line. Among my favourite passages is one in which Circe, as an adult, remembers her youthful, and regrettable, behaviour towards Szu, a newly bereaved girl in the early stages of an eating disorder, how she was unable to block her out: “She was like sarin gas, leaked poison.” A few lines later Circe compares Szu’s limbs to chopsticks, and comments that such was the fear she engendered, even the school bullies left her alone.
Teo is particularly brilliant at evoking a sense of place. In 2003 Szu, Amisa and Aunt Yunxi live in a grim, dilapidated bungalow originally paid for when Szu’s father, now absent, won the lottery. The bungalow is a brooding presence that seems to oppress those living in it. Szu comments. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese used to torture people here during the war.”
The other setting Teo conjures brilliantly is Singapore itself. She captures the city’s restlessness and modernity, alongside its adherence to tradition, and questionable celebration of its past. In 2020, Circe goes out to a new bar modelled on an old-time coffee shop. It “looked and felt like a dingy old kopitiam, down to the unstable plastic chairs and stray cats, except it served S$25 chendol espresso martinis and the staff wore a uniform of printed black wife-beaters and too tight jeans”.
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This nostalgia amid skyscrapers and a career in social media is typical of Singapore.
Above all, Teo conjures the sweaty heat of Singapore, with Szu and Circe both commenting regularly on its effects on skin: opening pores; making faces oily and damp.
Teo’s portrait of Singapore is so good it would not be a surprise if Ponti were a contender for the next Ondaatje Prize, awarded to a work that best evokes “spirit of a place”. People talk about “the great American novel”, or, in Britain, “the state of the nation novel”. Ponti is a great Singaporean novel, and a marvellous investigation of the state of the tiny island nation.