The distance between where she was and the glossy point where she wanted to be stretched and stretched.
In Ponti, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa’s otherworldly beauty and small diminished fame. ” I marvel for a split second at the unfairness of genetics, mysterious spirlas of DNA coiling and cohering into life sentences: You will be plain. You will be beautiful. You will repulse mosquitoes. You will have an iron gut. You will be sickened by crabmeat.” Amisa’s career never took off with the promise her beauty once held. Having left her small village for bigger things, she works hard and falls in love with Wei Loong, they marry and she works full-time at the Paradise Theater until she is discovered by filmaker “visionary” Iskander Wiryanto. She has the perfect beauty, like a mask, exactly who he desires to play the Pontianak (folklore, a ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth and preys on men, in the form of pale beauty, long dark hair) in his films. We follow Amisa through the making of the film, witness to the ‘bloom of her ego’ even in the face of grief for her losses back home. Playing the Ponti takes it’s toll on her, the filmaker difficult, pushing her harder than she can stomach, not as enraptured by her sexually as all men are. Three films in, and her shining star dims, the movie becomes a cult classic, but of the times no one is interested in superstitions nor films about ghosts. The parts dry up, Wiryanto no longer needs his beautiful ghost and life with Wei Loong leads to just another part, of poor housewife. It isn’t long before she is pregnant with Szu, and feeling dreadfully close to her own mother and the life she trudged through. Amisa is more like a ponti now than a starlet. Wei Loong leaves before Szu turns 8, and then it is three, Szu, Amisa and Auntie Yunxi.
Aunt Yunxi and Amisa earn their living as fakes, mediums who ‘trade in hope’, milking the desperation of their clients. It’s necessary to con people for their survival, what with her tragic mother more a ghost of a woman, sleeping away her life. Szu is a misfit and completely friendless, until she befriends Circe. The two of them ‘citizens of nowhere’, feel unique, bonding over their discontent with the world. For Circe, the allure is Szu’s mother and mysterious aunt, even in their ugly home, there is a pull. Jump ahead to 2020, Circe’s team is going to be working on promotions for the new re-make of Ponti, hence “it feels like a can of Amisa-shaped worms has been opened.” The reader is dragged through time, guest to each character’s perspective. Szu, once seeming so bitter, strong, solid begins to fade, retreat into herself. Something many female relationships wrestle with is the discomfort of familiarity, seeing too much of yourself in another. Sharlene Teo exposes this uncomfortable bond perfectly, there is a pull and push between Circe and Szu, a sort of marriage. They feel warm and cold toward each other, until Circe can’t stomach Szu, when Szu needs to be anchored most to the here and now! “She started wearing her hair in a bubble ponytail just like mine and mooched about my house all day drinking gallons of diet coke and draping her sadness over my things.” It’s too much heavy sadness, Szu is dwindling, and she isn’t going down with her! Circe wants to be young, fun, free and this friendship is suffocating, she needs to shake her off, shake off this stale depressive air. Circe of the present day isn’t sure she wants that Szu back in her life, and is surprised to hear of a Szu who turned out differently then she imagined.
Szu doesn’t really hate her mom, she hates that she wants her love and never gets it. That her mother was more a phantom through her entire childhood, never happy to play her part in her real life role. What is more melodramatic than a fallen star? Despising all the ordinary living that remains. How did Amisa, so beautiful, so alluring allow her promise to fizzle out? How could this woman, who as a young girl showed so much grit and courage by venturing into the city, the unknown to become something more, simply surrender? Auntie Yunxi is the bones of the household, maintaining the only structure in Szu’s life. But she is a mysteriously strange woman herself, and where is Szu’s father? Is she right in blaming her mother, for chasing him away being like a Ponti, a threat to his happiness? When he makes an appearance again, after life turns tragic, he has some truths to unveil.
This novel is disquieting, because the real ghost here is grief, blindness, and starry eyes. It’s about the whims of fate, beauty isn’t always a promise of anything solid either, you can’t bank solely on dreams nor a face. It’s giving up and closing your eyes to what you have, haunting your own future and destroying those nearest you in the process. It’s a child trapped by her mother’s shadow, who sees nothing but disappointment reflected back at her, a girl who hungers for the love she will be denied even from the grave. It’s clinging to another person for dear life, because they are a sort of stand in for the mother/daughter bond. Circe and Szu represent that awkward hunger girls have for connection, and how easily it can turn monstrous and all you want is your freedom. The Ponti in this story isn’t so much about the folkloric ghost, the more terrifying creature is Amisa, and what she allows her disappointments to do to her future. She was so sure her beauty signled her out for more, made her special and she simply retreated from life when it knocked her back to earth. Szu follows in her footsteps for a breath of time, devoured by her own form of grief, like a disease. I found this to be terribly sad, heavy to carry.
I admit I was disappointed by the ending. I felt the story was a gathering storm, waiting for a climactic moment (big things do happen throughout, in their own unassuming way, with death) but I was waiting to be a part of Circe and Szu’s reunion, which was more hinted at. It never culminates. The writing is gorgeous, it’s an emotional upheaval which is strange considering there is a great distance between all the characters. There is an air of detached coldness, but it seems more a defense, Szu isn’t as strong as she seems. Her anger is a wall. Maybe it’s true that grief ‘makes ghosts of us’ and that is part of why Amisa is more a suggestion of a mother, having lost someone dear to her early on. I am mixed on the novel, this is a talented writer but again I kept waiting for the big ending. Despite the aforementioned issues, the novel itself is beautifully written. Circe is haunted by the past friendship, and years later carries the burden of her reaction to Szu as she began falling apart. It’s a complicated look at friendship, unwanted motherhood, dead dreams and the terrible ways we allow certain moments to define our lives, for better or worse.
Sharlene Teo is one to watch. I am wildly curious what her next novel will be about.
Released Today! September 4, 2018
Simon & Schuster