Ponti – Sharlene Teo [Picador]
Anyone in Southeast Asia who is not a tourist will have known the tropical heat as a cold, hard look at human frailty. The sun does not so much bear down upon you as do away with the illusion of agency and control, of foreseeable positions. Anything goes, under and according to the sun. It is a banana peel that could very well knock you off your feet.
Ponti, the debut novel by Sharlene Teo, is wise to this. Its characters attempt in their own way to live their lives avoiding the heat. It opens with a girl named Szu holding on to a wall:
‘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 tethered to this wall by my own shame.’
She is holding on because if she lets go she might become disruptive in class. If she lets go she will be reminded once again that her skin is not clear, that she is not quite right, that her mother does not like her. She will have to face, in broad daylight, the realities of her life as a teenage girl in twenty-first century Singapore. She holds on.
Circe is thirty-three and works at an advertising company. She is trying to figure out how to sell a remake of an obscure 1980s horror film called Ponti. She seems to have lost her mojo, not least because the star of the original film is the mother of Szu, an old friend from school. She had abandoned Szu just when she needed her most.
Amisa had once been a promising actress. After moving to the city as a young girl, she is discovered and offered the lead in a film. This will seem to make her dreams come true. But the film fails. She now works at home and stays indoors.
Promotional literature around Teo’s Ponti will tell us that it is about the complexity of female relationships, of globalised, post-colonial Singapore, of the interface between mythology and modernity. Sold. But it is most convincing in its depiction of our human—and humanising—capacity for self-deception. The novel is strongest in its description of interior spaces, the man-made structures in which the characters fictionalise themselves and each other. Here is Circe on Amisa’s house:
‘I looked forward to revisiting that off-white building at the end of a leafy driveway, containing its beautiful discontent. It reminded me of the backstage of an ancient theatre in there. The melted-down candles … the palettes of fine pink powder that I assumed Amisa applied to her smooth, ghostly skin.’
If there seems to be no end to the self-deceptions, there is equally no exhausting the novel’s empathy towards the self-deceivers. We are human and we tell stories. We tell stories to make ourselves coherent, to feel our palms pressed on firm ground, to get away from the contingency of life, to retreat into the shade. The alternative is to face the sun.
Words – Olen Barjarias