Sharlene Teo, Ponti, Picador, 2018. 304 pages.
Three women. The heady atmosphere of an all-girls school, redolent of female jealousy and hidden hurt. A young girl from the Malaysian countryside renting a room in Singapore’s red-light district of the 1970s. A screen siren returned from the dead via a contemporary reboot of her movies—Ponti possesses all the elements of a B-grade chick flick (yes, there are men in the book, too.) But in the hands of Sharlene Teo, the novel reads as a visceral elegy for lost friendship and as a female bildungsroman in a rapidly modernising city-state.
In Malay folklore, the Pontianak is a female vampire who seduces hapless men, before draining their life-blood from them. Ironically, the emotional heart of the novel is not sexual desire, but an insatiable yearning for fellow feeling between female friends. The story begins in twenty-first century Singapore with Szu, the daughter of Amisa, a faded starlet of the Ponti movie series. Still beautiful despite her ongoing battle with cancer, Amisa despises her tall and bumbling daughter and tells her to her face that she regrets giving birth to her. Szu is also ostracised at school, until she meets Circe, who is shunned for being a “drama queen.” The two strike up an unlikely comradeship, where Circe’s natural intrusiveness encourages Szu to step out of her shell.
Fast forward seventeen years, and their friendship has fallen apart. Amisa is dead, and Circe is a newly divorced social media consultant tasked with working on the publicity blitz for Ponti, in a contemporary reboot of the series. Szu is nowhere in sight, except where she haunts Circe’s memories. The singular power of Teo’s narrative resides in the skillful splicing of episodes from characters’ pasts and presents to create a syuzhet replete with the poignancy of missed connections and moments of generous fellow-feeling between the most unlikely characters. As Circe is increasingly mired in present-day anomie, her detachment is balanced against Szu’s narrative arc in the past and their schoolgirl camaraderie. Surprisingly, it is Amisa who emerges from her ice-queen reserve to take sixteen-year-old Circe’s hands between her own, and to tell her “I know how people are. They don’t give, and they never listen. But you’re different, I’m different.” Young Circe is taken aback when the aging beauty tells her, “You’re going to make it out alive, don’t worry.” Circe carries that moment with her as a talisman into the future, when she finally finds the courage to reach out to Szu.
To be sure, Ponti is no maudlin tale about friendships lost and found. Teo has painted an unsparing picture of how we often mistake our self-absorption for the inadequacies of our closest friends. The narrative also cuts swiftly and cinematically between 2020, 2003 and the 1970–80s in Singapore to depict three young women making their way in a rapidly prospering Singapore—Amisa fleeing her Malaysian kampong for the city is paralleled with Szu’s discovery of a world of privilege when she visits Circe (a helper serves them lunch as they select music tracks from Circe’s extensive collection of CDs). Unlike Beauty is a Wound (2015), by Eka Kurniawan, where the resurrection of the famous beauty Ayu is an allegory for Indonesia’s coming of age in the 20th century, Amisa is monstrously and fully-realised as a character. Her intense repugnance for Szu causes her daughter to adopt a constant posture of self-loathing. The Pontianak of Ponti is therefore not the titular female vampire, but the enervating presence of grief and hurt in the lives of the three main characters. Like Amisa’s portrayal of the female ghoul in the unpopular movie trilogy, Ponti is a spectral projection of failed ambition and unfulfilled desire.
The novel also possesses a certain pedigree, arriving as it does with glowing endorsements by Ian McEwan and Tash Aw. Teo also received the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award in 2016 to complete the novel, and the finished work underwent a seven-way auction, before being published by Picador. Previous reviews by The Telegraph and the Asian Review of Books have lauded its portrayal of multi-generational relationships. Acclaimed on the international circuit as well as by the Singapore writing scene, there is a kind of globe-trotting star quality to Teo’s work, as an example of Rising Asia fiction. Its attention to female adolescence against the backdrop of Singapore’s whirlwind transformation from rural hub into glittering cosmopolis invites comparisons with recent examples of Singapore writing in the same genre, such as The Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe and Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal. But unlike Lee Koe’s short story plots, which are merciless in portraying how women’s desires are sidetracked by circumstance or social convention, Ponti is a novel of second chances. Sugarbread features a young Sikh girl navigating the same terrain of female friendship with her mother as well as her peers. Jaswal’s book, in contrast, reads as a gentler and more hopeful portrayal of how a daughter may discover her identity by way of learning about her mother’s story. In Ponti, a mother is a closed door, and Amisa is her own person. Teo’s novel is a book of its time for not shying away from the hard negotiations and transactional detachment at the core of even the most intimate relationships in a modern city. Circe and Amisa (and to a lesser extent, Szu) patrol their vulnerabilities as much as they yearn for a true connection with their friends or lovers. Teo seems to suggest that a young woman grows up, twice removed: once from herself as she tussles with social niceties, and again, when she has to fight those she is most intricately bound to for her own selfhood.
What is also notable about Ponti is its sumptuous and acerbic style, which does not shy away from the lived particularities of growing up as a girl. In what is possibly a first for the female bildungsroman in Singapore writing, Teo’s writing sings with a gritty scatological humor. Szu’s self-deprecating drollness is a means of surviving the cruel humiliations of being the odd girl out. Guilt makes Szu’s “tongue fatten in (her) mouth,” and she thinks “Perhaps I will drool … I am a hangdog.” On the way to school, she prays
I pray to birdshit,
I pray to the trees,
I pray to the walkway,
I pray to the construction cranes.
Nobody be bad to me,
Let me be okay.
Amen, amen, amen.
There is no inkling of transcendence in this prayer, only a despairing invocation of the banality around her to protect her against the powers-that-be. Likewise, Singapore is described as perpetually hazy and Szu’s home with Amisa is a humid bungalow with a sodden overgrown garden. Fluorescent-lit fish-tanks, a motif in the novel, become lightboxes for a supernatural atmosphere. The world of Ponti is one where beauty is always in abeyance, and characters must scrutinise the murky depths of their own experiences for their role in the broken friendships which characterise their life.
Unfortunately, the novel’s retrospective dynamic drags down the forward development of Circe’s present-day narrative, and the denouement of the novel reveals very little of Szu and Amisa’s interior development. Circe’s effort to reach out to Szu is acknowledged as the “blue bar” of a whatsapp message being read. And as much as Szu wishes kindness and love posthumously on Amisa while re-watching Ponti in the year 2020, the screen stalls to “an imperfect blur.” Perhaps the central message of Ponti is that all relationships are in fact an illusion, a dance in the dark with no guarantee of anyone between one’s arms. Balanced against such hopelessness is the restorative power of regret, transformed by the passage of time into an occasion for self-examination and letting go.
Ann Ang is a published writer of poetry and fiction, and her work has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, the California Quarterly and the Jakarta Post. She is also the author of Bang My Car (Math Paper Press, 2012), a Singlish-English collection of short stories, which has received numerous complaints for being excessively funny. An academic with research interests in narrative structure and world literature, Ann currently teaches at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.