The horror film angle was what initially piqued my interest in the novel, as well as the fact that it was set in Singapore, a place I’ve not often seen represented in fiction. The book takes on some of the character of a horror film, with an overbearing doom-laden feeling pervading the story. This reflects the inner lives of the characters, who are all unhappy for one reason or another, stuck in unsatisfying or frustrating lives. Occasional touches of surrealism cement the foreboding atmosphere.
Teenage characters are difficult to write convincingly, but Szu and Circe are a believable mix of naïve and worldly. Teo takes the brave step of making them not always likeable, in ways that are true to how teenagers behave, while still managing to hold the reader’s sympathies. In fact, most of the relationships in the book are dysfunctional, from Amisa taking her anger over her abortive film career out on Szu, to Circe’s unhealthy hero-worship of Amisa. Teo is interested in exploring the ways in which each of us are broken, and how that affects in turn the ways we relate to others.
The novel is well-written and very readable, and I found myself getting through it quickly. Teo employs a number of techniques to differentiate the characters’ voices, such as using shorter, plainer sentences with Szu, and more elaborate ones with Amisa, which helps each of them feel unique. She has a knack for vivid description and sharp use of imagery, making scenes that stick in the mind. One of the key moments of the story is set in a theme park, and the way she used the unreal, artificial atmosphere to enhance the characters’ emotions was for me a highlight.
Ponti is not always an easy book, and in places I found it quite confrontational, but that’s to it’s credit. It’s rare to see women portrayed with such deep flaws as these characters have. We see it with men all the time, but authors who write female characters carry the burden of always needing to make them lovely, kind, and unselfish if they want the reader’s sympathy. Teo shows no such inclination, and her three protagonists are as realistic and three-dimensional as it gets. While the book isn’t a masterpiece – she doesn’t quite manage to tie together all its various threads – it’s nevertheless an achievement, an intelligent and disquieting first novel that bodes well for whatever she writes next.
Review by Charlie Alcock