A coming-of-age novel set against the relentless modernisation of Singapore, where air pollution is measured daily and reeks of rotten eggs, or burnt barbecue.
In Ponti, men are largely absent or feckless. This is a novel about three women and told in three time perspectives. In the early 2000s Szu is sixteen, tall, awkward and ostracised by everyone; even her own mother is a monster who rejects her. She eventually finds a friend in Circe, another loner who is equally unpopular. There are brilliant descriptions of the ‘mean’ girls, the in-groups who tease and bully Szu and Circe: They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles … Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulder like a rifle sling.
As well as a monster for a mother, Szu is also coming to terms with a missing father, and the knowledge that now her mother is dying, she’ll never gain her affection or approval. She’ll be left with only the mysterious Aunt Yunxi who works as a medium, with Amisa as her assistant.
In the 70s Amisa, young, poor and impossibly beautiful, is spotted by a film director and promised international stardom: Her face would grace billboards in Hong Kong, Paris, Hollywood … she would be immortal. She makes a series of three shlock horror films starting with Ponti! about the Pontianak, a vampire-like monster who lures men to their deaths with her ethereal beauty. But when the films are released, horror is unfashionable; everyone wants American sci-fi movies like Close Encounters. The films are a flop. Amisa never hits the big time and her short film career defines the rest of her life.
In 2020 Circe, estranged from Szu, is working for a cutting edge media company promoting a reworking of Ponti for a contemporary audience. But she’s living with a medical condition more typical of developing countries – a tapeworm that she feels moving inside her, symbolising the monster she feels she is and the guilt that she was disloyal to Szu when her mother died. Circe also felt the strange mystical bond with Amisa – What linked us was something real and true and rare. Szu wouldn’t understand.
Writing in the Observer, Julie Myerson was damning about Teo’s knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak; while I think she’s heavy handed in her criticism, she does have a point about the language; but only on a very few occasions.
Overall this ambitious debut novel is a success – it took me back to the sometimes gruesomeness of life as an angsty adolescent. Painfully sad but sometimes humorous, Ponti is an eye-opening read about the effects of rapid modernisation on a developing country and the people who have to live with the consequences.