It’s so bizarre when reading one novel after another to discover coincidental and surprising connections between them. Right after I finished reading Madeline Miller’s “Circe” I started reading Sharlene Teo’s debut novel “Ponti” since it’s one I’ve been anticipating and I wanted to finish it before going to the latest Lush Book Club hosted by Anna James. I soon realized one of the main characters is called Circe as well. While it’s a really evocative name from Greek mythology, it’s certainly not a common one so it was a fun surprise. But this is just an incidental comment about my process of reading what turned out to be a novel that’s so distinct and engrossing.
Since its publication earlier this year, “Ponti” made a splash on social media after receiving a briskly cutting review in the Guardian from Julie Myserson who criticised the “writing workshop” feel of certain scenes and the “limitations of creative writing courses.” In particular she objects to the turns of phrase in sections narrated by Circe whose somewhat self-consciously crude language is actually a crucial part of her character. The review sparked a flurry of responses defending both the value of writing courses and the creativity Teo demonstrates in this complex novel. It was good to hear that Teo herself felt unperturbed about the criticism when Anna asked her about it at the book club discussion. She sensibly sees the value in the debate for how it encouraged people to discuss her novel more and how it also raised interesting issues surrounding creativity/writing courses. I simply note all this because, despite Myserson’s dismissive tone about the book, I found “Ponti” to be refreshingly original and emotionally arresting.
Teo uses such an interesting structure for “Ponti” which rotates between three different characters’ perspectives in three different decades. This felt slightly disorientating at first until the story so compellingly began to fit together. For a part of the book I couldn’t help longing to only remain with Szu whose story follows her in the early 2000s navigating her awkward teen years and friendship with Circe. Szu also lives under the shadow of her more glamorous mother Amisa, an obscure film star whose only role consisted of acting in a trilogy of cult horror movies but she now makes a living as a con artist psychic alongside Szu’s auntie. However, as the novel progressed the revolving perspectives and connections combined to create a thrilling momentum. The way its told says something quite poignant about the meaning of time, memory and grief. In one section a character observes how “Grief makes ghosts of people. I don’t just mean the ones lost, but the leftover people.” In a way, Amisa, Szu and Circe are all living ghosts who are unable to fulfil their potential because of disappointments or trauma that they’ve experienced.
The relationships between all three of the characters is so sensitively composed. It felt bracingly honest how Szu and Circe develop a bond, but their connection slips away as soon as Szu needs Circe the most. They aren’t simply misfits within their school who form a friendship over being outcasts. Their relationship constantly shifts and reforms just as they are building and reforming a sense of identity in these crucial teenage years. Circe reflects that “The truth is Szu and I told half-fictions to each other. We were complicit in our mutual exaggerations.” Teo captures so well the sense of story telling between friends as a self-mythologizing enterprise and an exploration between the lines of candour/confession and emotional truth/historic accuracy. She also shows the heart breaking way friends can outgrow one another.
Equally, Szu’s relationship with her mother Amisa is movingly portrayed as Szu feels such pride in her mother’s acting career despite it being short lived and unsuccessful. In one of the most striking scenes Szu desperately tries to interest a classmate in Amisa’s films even when the girl obviously doesn't care. It felt strikingly realistic how Szu feels a mixture of pride and repulsion for her mother. For whatever reason, Amisa doesn’t feel the kind of bond with her daughter where she can gain any satisfaction from the daughter’s admiration. Instead she shuns Szu and hunkers down in her bitterness at not having achieved the kind of fame that her potential suggested she might reach. This disconnect between mother and daughter is heart wrenching, especially in the way their relationship ultimately plays out. There’s also an unsettling poignancy in the way Amisa’s film role was that of a female vampiric ghost from Malay mythology. A version of the legend relates how the Pontianak originated from a child being stillborn. In this novel it’s ironic that here’s a child capable of loving her mother, but instead Amisa selfishly only longs for the love of the wider world. Her ego is what makes her become a kind of monster.
It's a deeply engaging reading experience. Overall, I feel “Ponti” is strikingly sophisticated in how it creatively incorporates a well-known trope from horror movies to say something meaningful about the tragic disconnect which can occur in our most important relationships.