Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Guat's Old House

Chuah Guat Eng broke new ground when she became the first Malaysian woman to have published a full length novel in English, Echoes of Silence, in 1994. Now her new book The Old House and other Stories brings together her short fiction published in various publications (at home and abroad) over the past two decades, the earliest pieces appearing in the New Straits Times in the good old days when the paper actively supported and encouraged new Malaysian writing.

Although a single short story should stand perfectly well by itself, a collection of works by the same writer lets us see patterns and preoccupations that we might otherwise miss. This was true in the case of Wena Poon's Lions in Winter, and certainly is so with this collection of Guat's work too.

Putting the stories side by side also allows us to appreciate that a strong supernatural element runs through several of the stories. Guats' ghosts, though, are not obvious monsters with dripping fangs or shrieking pontianaks. Instead, they are manifestations of disturbing memories that have become buried and calloused over with time. When these internal hurts are dragged back into the light of day by current events they invariably force a huge psychological upheaval and a necessary re-evaluation.

Something else that comes through in story after story is how it is often those closest to us, those who we entrust to love and protect us, who so often end up betraying us.

Almost the Worst Thing (published originally in Silverfish New Writing 3) the story of a wife reflecting on her husband's infidelity is so subtly written that some readers miss the paranormal twist in the ending which leads you to rethink the whole piece. (I only discovered it on second reading.)

The title piece, The Old House, begins as a classic haunted mansion story. Suan and her five-year old daughter decide to take a look at an about-to-be demolished house when they're out for an evening stroll. They hear the disquieting sound of a child crying in the garden although they can see no-one, and find an old necklace in the neglected garden. When this turns out to be valuable, Suan decides to track down the original owners so that she can return it. But when she meets the woman who grew up in the house, and her small daughter, she realises how child abuse can be passed on from one generation to another, and how important it is for love to break the cycle.

Buried memories of abuse, this time sexual, also come to the fore in Seventh Uncle (which first appeared in the Penguin collection The Merlion and the Hibiscus). Siew Hoon goes home for a family funeral. The old man is remembered fondly as a dandy, a bit of a bon vivant, and for his love of aphorisms, which Siew Hoon has herself internalised and followed. Soon her memories of him must be re-examined when she meets up after many years with the cousin once dubbed Non-Brain Noneh who offers Siew Hoon a very different version of the past.

Noneh, unlovely, deeply angry, is one of the characters I feel most for in the whole collection, and her howl of pain when she recalls past taunts is deeply affecting:
Just because of these big, stupid tits, people think I have no brains, cannot feel pain, cannot feel shame, cannot feel anything, cannot cry, cannot speak up, cannot tell the truth!
Karuna's Mermaid, the most recent story in the book is a lovely mysterious story in which a body is washed onto the beach of a small resort island. Is it as four-year old Karuna believes a mermaid, or is it, (as her mother and dying grandmother believe) in some sense reincarnation of a much loved brother and son who committed suicide by drowning? I like the way that the loose ends are not too neatly tied, giving the reader space for speculation.

I enjoyed Two Pretty Men - especially for its portraits of the two gay men and careful attention detail, but I felt that I would have liked to have inhabited that world and stayed with those characters rather longer rather than be tugged away from them by the workings of the plot, which in any case proved less than convincing.

The Tamarind Tree is firmly rooted in kampung life and creates a very strong sense of the central character who almost is incensed at the when a man hangs himself from the tamarind tree of the title. She considers it her tree, the tree where she has spent many hours gorging herself on tamarind fruit and (for it is clearly also a Tree of Knowledge) her boyfriend Lek's embraces. The suicide jars the girl into a series of reflections on her changed relationship with her father (a widower who has remarried) and her about her own issues with men - and their sexual needs - in general.

Although Guat's stories often they take us into a world which is often dark and painful, the collection does have its lighter moments. Passing Clouds 1997-8 is a lovely study in contrasts. Outside the air is thick with (that which is euphemistically called) "the haze", inside a computer screen saver affords a tiny glimpse of blue sky and white clouds. Su Lin, a freelance (and necessarily cash-strapped) script-writer working from home is visited by her friend, the irresponsible and completely impractical Gim, who can afford new Ferragamo shoes but can't repay a loan.

The Power of Advertising,
the first piece in the book, is a delicious revenge tale set in the world of advertising (in which Guat herself once worked) and achieves a neat symmetry, as well as a certain irony by being bracketed by condolence notices in the newspaper- surely advertising of a different sort!

And while the language in many of the stories is measured, precise and slightly formal, in The Day Andy Warhol Died the writer convincingly inhabits the voice of a teenager, trying to make the best sense she can of her colourful Aunt Bongsu (who reminded me of Muriel Spark's Jean Brody!) while to great comic effect her younger sister manages all the time to be a great deal more knowing.

There is much to admire in the quiet craftsmanship of Guat's stories, and I do hope there is more of them to come. And I wonder, after reading Professor Quayum's interview with the writer at the end of the book whether there mightn't be very interesting material in Guat's childhood for a memoir? It certainly would be one that I would like to read.

Now I have to add (because the technical side of local publishing interests me so much) that this is the first locally produced book (either self-published as this one is, or commercially produced) I've seen for some time without any clumsiness of tenses at all, without a single grammar or tense error - the proofreading alone hits a new high standard. I also really like the blue-lady cover and layout of the book, although (for future reference, Guat!) the binding is a little tight and I have had all kinds of heavy objects holding the pages open while I've been typing this!


Peminat Guat said...

The novel is 'Echoes of Silence'

bibliobibuli said...

oh yeah. thanks!!


bibliobibuli said...

brian moore wrote "lies of silence". pretty good it was too.

guat said...

Thank you for this, Sharon. I've been so busy correcting the punctuations and cross-references and donowhatsomemore of my thesis for re-submisssion etc that I haven't been to blogosphere for close to a month (I think). Sorry about the binding. Yes, I find it a real pain myself. But don't you love the paper and the font? Chose the paper and font and did the typesetting and layout meself :-)

bibliobibuli said...

yes, it's a very nicely produced book and even the binding wouldn't have been a problem if i had just been reading it and not trying to type up notes about it. very well done!