The year is 1985. Durga is visiting her grandmother Mary in rural Malaysia. It’s not a particularly happy occasion: Mary is tough and sharp-tongued, and “home” sparks bad memories for Durga.
Catherine Menon’s debut novel, Fragile Monsters, is a beautifully written story of one Indian Malaysian family’s history, entwined with secrets and hidden heartbreak, told through the fractious relationship of Durga and her Ammuma, her grandmother Mary. When Durga, a mathematics lecturer returns home to rural Pahang after ten years away in Canada and in Kuala Lumpur, to spend Diwali with Mary, the pair are forced to untangle the mystery of their past. “Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait,” Durga says.
To some extent, all one needs to know about The Java Enigma is that it has been called, more than once, “Da Vinci Code”-like. This will either intrigue or repel, depending on how one feels about Dan Brown’s genre-creating blockbuster. Neither reaction would however be entirely warranted, for—while there are certainly similarities—Erni Salleh’s debut novel is quite a different animal. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter.
It may seem like a familiar fairy tale. A step-mother, two step-siblings, and a girl who isn’t glamorous. But instead of Prince Charming or a fairy godmother, the object of the girl’s interest is a ghost. Western ghosts (pace Casper, who had to be explicitly labelled “friendly”) are usually malevolent in some way; two new books—one from Danish writer HS Norup, who spent four years in Singapore, and the other from Malaysian writer Hanna Alkaf—feature Asian ghosts who are decidedly more sympathetic.
Well, what can one say? The guy can write. Joshua Kam’s How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World is quite the debut, accomplished, deft, unabashed and exuberant.
Surrealism is something of an outlier in mainstream English fiction, yet it seems to crop up with some frequency in contemporary Chinese-language literature, at least in those works that find themselves in English-translation. This penchant for surrealism can seem even more pronounced, or perhaps concentrated, in the wider Chinese world and diaspora: Dorothy Tse, Hon Lai-Chu and Dung Kai-Cheung in Hong Kong and Malaysia’s Ng Kim Chew being among the practitioners. The surrealism central to this newly-translated collection by Ho Sok Fong fits right in.
In a welcome development for new voices and regional literature, Penguin Southeast Asia began publishing in Singapore in May. Among its first titles are two collections of short stories, The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew, and Cursed and Other Stories by Noelle Q De Jesus.