Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spicy Sambal With Anchovies

I briefly mentioned Chua Kok Yee's new collection of short stories Without Anchovies the other day, and want to say more about it now. (I'm slow, I know...).

The last time I wrote about Kok Yee's writing was when News From Home was published, and I commented that he had a wonderfully quirky imagination but that his writing style needed to develop. I am frankly surprised (and very pleased) to see how far he has come in this short time. Here he writes the kind of clear, straightforward prose that allows the reader to ease right into a story, and his strong openings pull you into the story from the word go.

I'm a really jaded reader at the moment. I pick up fiction - get so far into it and toss it aside when it disappoints, but I enjoyed each and every one of these stories.  The best of them, I found fresh and surprising, and for that reason I'm not going to tell you too much about what happens in them.

The title piece Sambal without Anchovies, a well-told and moving story of family relationships, love and loss, and a family and nasi lemak business.
My favourite story of all was The Gift (which Kok Yee read at Seksan's last week) and I could have wept for the girl who scrimps and saves to buy her mother a gift ... only to have everything go most horribly wrong. Smoking Can Kill is extremely clever because here smoking does kill, but in the most bizarrely round-about way.

Kok Yee does horror very well - I loved Moving which was an unusual twist on the usual haunted house story, while An Untrue Love story has quite a conventional plot for a local horror story (remember - I grew up with New Thrill, Malaysia's trashy horror newspaper in the 1980's!) but works very well because of the unconventional voice of its narrator who fills in the gaps of what didn't happen with her alternative view of events. 

A Circus Interview was surreal and haunting, and reminded me of the stories of Etgar Keret.

I particularly enjoyed the stories where humour was blended with the horror Dead Cougar was a delight, and A Cemetery Story, a cheeky little take on the British Council's City Of Stories project, had me grinning.

Being able to create characters which are not only believable but who really intrigue us in so short a space is no mean feat. Mei who appears in both in Dinner and Cruel Mother is particularly well-realised and I'd be happy to spend more time in her company. The mother in Thieving Daughter is both demented and achingly lonely and we can't help but be fascinated by her. (It's actually quite strange that Kok Yee's female characters are often more convincing than the males!)

In some cases, I felt that while the concept of the story was simply excellent,  the execution could have been a rather better.

The outer frame of the story The Hippocratic Oath - the anesthetist in the operating theatre considering how she has the life of the patient in her hands - is very well realised with plenty of attention to detail, but the charcters in the inner story (the gangster and his wife) are comic-book stereotypes and we can't believe in them, or really feel his menace or her fear.

I wasn't terribly convinced by Embracing Your Shadow where a man is hanted by the memory of a woman he saw only once years before so that he is never able to make his marriage a success. It would actually be hard for any writer to make this seem possible, as we all know that in real life even the most physically appealing member of the opposite sex will generally cease to figure in our thoughts as soon as we move past them, and even the memories of old lovers fade in time. This woman does not seem to have much about her that distinguishes her from the mass for the reader, which makes the protagonist's obsession even harder to fathom.

There's a couple more things I'd like to pass on advice to Kok Yee (and other writers who might be reading this, of course!). Firstly beware of unnecessary POV shifts, as in Sambal Without Anchovies - there actually is no reason why the whole story couldn't have been told from a consistent viewpoint.  Secondly, there is no need to describe every character's physical appearance and clothes when we first encounter them - just select the one or two telling details that will make them stand out for us.  As readers we are perfectly capable of filling in the blanks when imagining our characters.

As for the production of the book, love the creamy paper and the cover fold-ins.  I'm not wild about the picture of the dead flowers which is greatly at odds with the title. (Mixed metaphors?) 

There are some proofreading errors in the book- many more than there should be - and predictably (because Malaysians always find these hard) the most problematic areas are: sequence of tenses (when to use past simple and when to use past prefect); and the confusion between will and would for real and unreal conditions.   But yes, I'm being picky as an ex-English teacher turned editor is, I think, allowed to be. The book needed another editing pass.

Kok Yee is a local writer very well-worth supporting and it will be really interesting to see his development. There are certainly plenty of anchovies in this spicy sambal.


Kokyee said...

Thanks for the review and advice, Sharon.

bibliobibuli said...

Just one person's opinion so you take it like sambal - just a little bit to mix with your rice. And keep writing because I can't wait to read the next book!

Fadz said...

Reviewed the book here: