Deborah Rogers was an influential literary agent in London. After her death in 2014, the Deborah Rogers Writers Award was established in her honor. Since literary agents thrive on finding talented new authors, the prize was set up to support authors as they finished their first novel. In 2016, UK-based Sharlene Teo won the inaugural prize with an extract from her work-in-progress, Ponti, set in her native Singapore. The finished novel is now published by Picador.
Ponti (short for Pontianak, the man-hunting female ghoul of Malay legend) is part coming-of-age, and part coming-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 sixteen-year-olds who struggle to fit in with their peers, but who find solace in their new, and developing friendship. Szu’s impossibly beautiful mum, Amisa, is dying.
In her youth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Amisa starred as the Pontianak in three hammy movies: Ponti 1, Ponti 2 and Ponti 3. These vanity-projects funded by the director’s wife flopped, so at twenty-four Amisa “had three films to her name, but her name didn’t matter.” Teo can’t have intended it, and what’s more she points out this is not the cliche of the fame-hungry actress and the sex-hungry powerful man, but the passages concerning Amisa’s relationship with the director, Iskandar Wiryanto are sure to prod readers to 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. Apart from the final one, the chapters from Szu are all set in 2003. Circe’s chapters are set in 2020.
Szu is compelling and believable, she is filled with authentic teenage confusion, distress and sense of specialness. Chapter 1 is written from her perspective, and through her Teo grabs the reader from the 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.
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 in the final chapter, this is not an observation of unmixed teenage gloom, but one mingled 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 sixteen.
Circe seemed a little overburdened by her portentous name: what did it portend? None of the possible explanations that came to mind seemed satisfactory. Circe’s brother is the more prosaically name Leslie, and her only comment on her own name is to acknowledge it sounds pretentious.
However, 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-actress 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.” Back In 2003, Aunt Yunxi lived with Amisa and Szu. Szu believed Aunt Yunxi to be her mother’s sister, although, in fact, the two women were not related.
Teo’s writing is wonderful; Ponti, filled with spot-on vivid descriptions, metaphors, and observations, is a novel to enjoy line-by-line. Among my bleakly favorite passages was one in which Circe, as an adult, remembers her own youthful and regrettable behavior towards Szu, a newly bereaved girl in the early stages of an eating disorder. Circe remembers being 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 on evoking place. In 2003 Szu, Amisa and Aunt Yunxi live in a grimly dilapidated bungalow originally paid for when Szu’s father, now absent, won the lottery. This bungalow is a brooding presence that seems to oppress the people 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 its 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.
This nostalgia amidst skyscrapers and careers 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 marvelous investigation of the state of the tiny island nation.