Alexandra WONG reviews Wena POON's Lions in Winter (2007)
A lean, pithy début
Review by ALEXANDRA WONG
LIONS IN WINTER
By Wena Poon
(With an introduction by Kirpal Singh)
Publisher: MPH Publishing, 232 pages
TO PUT IT SIMPLY, Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter is about people like you and me.
Written over a span of five years, the 11 short stories tread territory that is familiar yet unexplored. They are culled from everyday events and characters that have rarely found their way into Asia-inspired English language literature but that every modern Asian can identify with.
To me, reading this book was like attending a family reunion at which each of my warped, wacky, flawed relatives took turns to drag skeletons out of closets and regale me with anecdotes that were by turns funny, dramatic, thought-provoking or tragic.
My favourite story is “Shooting Ranch.” Poon is at her grittiest in this, throwing a bucketful of uncomfortable truths in my face—and I can’t look away. I’m sitting in the dining room, transfixed by horrific goings-on in the family that unfold like scenes from a Coen brothers’ noir film.
One of Poon’s greatest strengths is her attention to detail: she builds expectations by crafting intricate, richly detailed plots and layered context. I like this for one reason: I don’t feel cheated when the climax comes, in the way that I do when I am ambushed by an I-bet-you-didn’t-see-that-coming ending.
Except for some poetic word necklaces that, I feel, would fit better into a novel-length work rather than a confining short story, Poon’s writing is lean. No grandiloquent words or abstract, post-modern references here, thank God.
In fact, there are several instances when she manages to achieve an effect in a few sentences that other writers can’t manage in entire novels. “When winter came, they made angels in the snow and baked Toad-in-a-Hole. They lay on the carpet listening to CDs. They made love. Alistair never felt so accompanied in his life.” This, to me, is one of the most evocative descriptions of love I’ve ever come across.
And who needs pompous, condescending social commentary when you can have this: “On the way out of the store, she caught a glimpse of herself in the new sweater, and thought how instantly American she looked. She looked like one of those Chinese American girls? It was the same hair, the same skin; what a difference an American sweater made.”
How I wish I had come up with these pithy word-bites!
Poon has described her stories as character portraits. They are that, and more, for Poon writes with the keen eye of a photographer and the imagination of an artist, and also with the heart of a person of deep compassion.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the insidious religious zealot in “Shooting Ranch” and the nasty older sister in “Kenny’s Big Break” would have come across as characters to be loathed.
Poon’s deft, sympathetic touch ensures you don’t simply hate them; instead, you end up wondering what could have happened to make them that way.
Such skill in creating characters that are far more than one-dimensional underline the fact that, for a début collection, Lions in Winter is an accomplished piece of work. In fact, it is that by any measure and would, I wager, hold its own among works by more experienced Asian writers.
Review first published in The Sunday Star, November 25, 2007