Sharon BAKAR reviews Ripples and Other Stories (Silverfish Books, 2008)
Review by Sharon BAKAR
Our Frank O’Connor débutant stacks up quite nicely against the competition
Ripples and Other Stories
By Shih-Li Kow
(Silverfish Books, 2008)
SHIH-LI KOW made her first appearance on the local writing scene in a collection called News from Home—she was one of three new writers who had been nurtured by a Silverfish Books creative writing course. Her second offering, Ripples and Other Stories, has been shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, beating off some impressive competition, including veteran authors Kazuo Ishiguro and Ali Smith. Ripples demonstrates Kow’s uncanny ability to channel the voices of a large number of characters, even those whose lives are far removed, by age, sex and circumstance, from her own life experience.
Nowhere is this more true than in the title story of the collection. A dour older man reflects on a life where he has done everything dutifully, having inherited from his father the belief that during our lives we are tested, and our worth comes from weathering these tests. Life has thrown this man a succession of misfortunes, and while he has weathered each storm admirably, each setback only making him stronger, he realises that he has lived joylessly. “I never did dance,” he finds himself telling a vagrant. But a series of chance encounters teaches him how important it is to grasp the individual moment and re-learn to see the world with a sense of wonder.
This preoccupation with recapturing the simplicity and innocence of childhood can also be seen in ‘Precious Things.’ A woman seeking shelter from the rain in Malacca finds herself in a shop where she encounters an elderly Nyonya, sitting amidst the artifacts that have defined her life and which have now been put up for sale as antique pieces. What’s the value of a life, she demands to know, asking the younger woman to tot up the cost of each of the items she has owned on a calculator. But more importantly, she asks, how does it feel to be a child and just to run? The questions reverberate with the protagonist and cause her to reassess her own life.
There is little that is predictable about any of Kow’s stories, but ‘Grey Cats’ in particular presents us with a series of surprises. The story is set in an abortion clinic, and as the pieces of the story come together, we are horrified that the protagonist feels no shame at all for what has happened, for the grief and pain of his shamed maid and distraught childless wife. His callousness is brought home most forcefully through the detached tone in which he tells the story.
Two stories in the collection very cleverly question what it means to be Malaysian, and both of them are coincidentally (though perhaps not surprisingly, given the national character!) about food. ‘Deep Fried Devils’ is a deeply ironic tale of the rivalry between hawkers of different races serving the same dish, the crullers of the title. But then they are united as Malaysians once an element of foreign competition is introduced.
‘Hungry in Guangzhou’ feels like the most personal piece in the book. On a business trip to China, the protagonist finds herself eating soupy noodles at a local stall and trying to be nonchalant in the face of “... the smell, the heat, the bodies, the noise ...”—this is, after all, where her ancestors came from. But she reluctantly realises that those roots have been severed: “... where my surname was sown, I am an imposter. Why doesn’t my blood quicken in recognition of my ancestral homeland?” Instead, it is back in Malaysia, when she finds an all-night Indian Muslim restaurant that serves her rice, tandoori chicken and poppadoms, that she realises she is truly at home. It’s a scenario Malaysians of all races will recognise.
Perhaps, though, Kow needs to beware of a triteness of ending, and of the short story that ends abruptly as soon as a punchline is delivered. This is the case in ‘The Courting of Cik Zahirah,’ a genuinely chilling horror story that ends too abruptly the second the climax is reached. Also, the last sentence of ‘Hungry in Guangzhou’ is unnecessary and jars.
‘The Prize’ centres on a very real moral dilemma: Daniel, a Malay boy, wins a four-digit lottery first prize with his friends. His share of the prize money would be enough to pay for his tertiary education, something his family could otherwise only afford by borrowing. But to accept the fruits of gambling is anathema to the Muslim beliefs of Daniel’s father. Thus, a real conflict is created—and could have been further explored but seems in the end to be resolved rather too quickly and easily.
Elsewhere, Kow creates excellent characters with voices we would like to go on listening to beyond the framework of a single short story. The wonderfully gossipy Aunty So-and-So in ‘One Thing at a Time’ and the nosy Mrs Narayanan in ‘Dividing Walls’ are both larger-than-life characters who seem to demand more space than the short story allows; it would be good to see Kow working her magic on a larger canvas.
Careful readers will notice that characters from one story tend to appear on the edges of another, setting up ripples within the book as a whole. This is a novel idea, and one that could have been developed further, perhaps. To her credit, Kow is not afraid to experiment and ventures into more surreal territory with the quirky tale, ‘Into Grandma Pathy,’ and the very short fable, ‘Let the Bird Sing’—both of them are quite stunning.
The best pieces in the collection display Kow as an intelligent and subtle short-story writer, with a firm grip on her craft. She is an excellent prose stylist, and there’s a musicality in her writing which makes it seems effortless. Ripples confirms her as one of the best writers of the form in the country, and one feels that the book can stand proudly beside its competitors on the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize shortlist.
Reproduced from the Sunday Star of July 5, 2009