In a story in Agnes Chew’s impressive debut collection, Eternal Summer of My Homeland, a Singaporean woman named Nadine gets to know a German man and speaks to him about love, mortality, and philosophy. Mortality seems to be a theme throughout the collection of stories about regular people in Singapore. There’s nothing Crazy Rich about them, which perhaps is why they place so much thought on the decisions they make.
In the opening story, Garden City, a young woman named Hui Shan loses her mother a few months before her first child was born and feels sad her mother could never meet her son. She struggles to juggle her grief with the day-to-day care of her baby. As the years go by, Hui Shan grows frustrated with her father because he won’t visit her mother’s gravesite with her and bring offerings.
But little does Hui Shan know that her father is mourning and remembering his wife not only in his own way but also in the way he believes his wife would have wanted, going back to a hike he and his wife took in Singapore years earlier.
The details of that day remained vivid in his mind. The sky had been sown with clouds when they awoke, but still they decided to go on their walk. After reaching the heart of the forest, a light rain began to fall around them. Under the shoulder of a large tembusu tree, they stood huddled together, feeling the gentle spray on their faces, inhaling the smell of rain on bark. He closed his eyes while his wife kept hers open. “How nice it’d be if we had a garden of our own,” she murmured to herself, a longing she didn’t realise he had heard.
But heard he had, and when he thinks about this garden again after she dies, he goes back to the forest and devotes his days to planting it exactly the way he thinks she would have wanted with fruit trees, vegetables, and plants. This garden is hidden away from passersby and for a decade Hui Shan’s father spends his days keeping it up uninterrupted, that is until the day Hui Shan follows him and discovers what he’s been up to all these years. Hui Shan’s father chooses to spend his days devoted to his late wife’s garden and even sharing it with one person—his own daughter—proves to be perilous.
In “When What Is Linear Meanders”, a 10 year-old girl named Sonya is diagnosed with scoliosis after a screening at school. Her case is severe and observation and braces—typical for many scoliosis patients—will not help her. Her doctor insists on immediate surgery, followed by a number of follow up surgeries. If she doesn’t get these, the doctor warns she won’t be able to walk by the age of thirty. Sonya’s parents worry that this one doctor seems in a hurry to operate, suggesting such drastic measures. So they decide to ask for second opinions.
Views, suggestions and recommendations streamed in from relatives, friends and acquaintances. Suddenly, everyone was a scoliosis expert. Every weekend became filled with medical appointments. Sonya lost count of the number of chiropractors, physiotherapists and Chinese sinsehs she saw.
But swimming, hanging from a bar in her room, and acupuncture prove ineffective. In the end, Sonya loses a year at school and when she returns, her classmates have all graduated and she’s left to find new friends, as if she’s the new girl at school.
In another story, “Home”, a 61-year-old woman named Lim Bee Geok takes the MRT to Changi Airport one day and witnesses a couple of foreigners camping out in the airport terminal. She hasn’t spent much time at the airport, but finds it an exciting, ever-changing place. She locates a place to sit and soon she’s a regular, too.
Bee Geok had lived for six decades, but had never once taken an airplane, never even traveled overseas beyond crossing the straits to Johor Bahru once for a family trip. Still, like everyone else, she was keenly aware that her country was home to the world’s best airport. An award-winning airport that offered electricity, air conditioning, toilets and drinking water at no charge. A refuge for travelers as they waited to embark on the next phase of their journeys, however long it might take.
Bee Geok’s daughter learns her mother is living at the airport and sometimes brings her money, but she eventually stops visiting. Bee Geok’s other six children either live outside of Singapore or don’t speak to her, preferring to leave their poor background behind forever. Bee Geok feels that after raising seven children, she should be able to live the way she chooses.
The other stories in the collection also bring the main characters to different crossroads in their lives, presenting them with choices that are conventional versus those that could enrich their lives. Chew’s writing shows empathy for these normal people with normal jobs. As she now makes Germany home, these stories can also be seen as a love letter to Singapore, where she was born and raised.