Szu is a friendless, rudderless misfit. "I am Miss Frankenstein, I am the bottom of the bell curve." At her Singaporean all-girls' school she is labelled disruptive by her teachers and mocked or ignored by her fellow pupils. Home is a rusting, stinking, dilapidated house with a weed-infested garden. Her father walked out long ago, leaving her to be brought up by her mother, Amisa, and her Aunt Yunxi. Both women "trade in hope" as hack mediums, performing séances for the desperate and the vulnerable. "A sad face is an open wallet."
But Szu's mother hasn't always exploited people's weaknesses. In her past life she profited from their fears. The young and immensely beautiful Amisa was the star of the cult horror film Ponti! ("the best and most underappreciated film to come out of Singapore in 1978"). In it, and the two sequels it spawned, she played the mythic, cannibalistic Pontianak who, in order to preserve her looks, seduces men then devours their organs.
Szu has watched the trilogy over and over and wishes she were more like her mother – "a monster but so stunning that she can get away with anything". Instead, gangly and ungainly Szu gets away with nothing and finds herself forced to endure alone the trials of adolescence, the
ordeal of school and the agonies of victimhood.
So begins Sharlene Teo's Ponti, with all the trappings of an angsty, witty coming-of-age tale. However, at the end of the second chapter, Teo wrong-foots us by leaving a glum Szu eating a 16th birthday meal she has no appetite for and switching to a different character at an earlier time. We rewind to 1968 and follow the progress of a 10-year-old Amisa. After a short return to Szu and her fateful meeting with new school-friend Circe, Teo fast-forwards to reveal how Circe's life has panned out.
The novel is thus not one woman’s story, but three. Teo skips from one fragmented perspective to another, tracking separate experiences, shared emotions and interwoven fates. What could have been disjointed and confusing is instead multifaceted and riveting.
The sections devoted to Szu and Circe comprise accounts of single years – Szu in 2003, Circe in 2020 – albeit with frequent detours down memory lane. Szu describes how a chance encounter blossoms into an intense friendship, with both she and Circe becoming kindred spirits (or “failures together”), showing solidarity and taking on the world – that is until one eventually feels overburdened by the other and decides to break free.
Seventeen years later and Circe is 33, divorced ("deep into the process of unknowing my ex-husband") and a social media consultant. Her current work project involves promoting a remake of Ponti!, but as she goes about it she is assailed by recollections of her once-tight bond with Szu and Amisa's unique charm: "She had a brand of bruised yet appealing insouciance that I wanted to grow into one day myself."
Teo tells Amisa’s story differently: creating more distance and objectivity by sliding into third-person narration, and swapping the confines of a sole year to a comprehensive trawl through a whole life. The highlights are Amisa’s transition from usherette to actress and her loving relationship with her husband; the low points are that film career stalling shortly after starting and her marriage crumbling then collapsing.
This is an assured debut novel from a writer with great potential. Teo was born in Singapore but studied in the UK – first law and then creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Another alumnus, Ian McEwan, is one of several authors to shower the book with praise.
It isn’t perfect. Some of Teo’s descriptions vary drastically in quality. A school wall “the shade of carsickness and cheap mint ice cream” is nauseously evocative; “His voice is new, carroty” is downright baffling. And like many first-time novelists, Teo finds a lot of alliteration alluring.
But there is so much to appreciate, even wonder at, that after a while the odd stylistic fault barely registers. Teo's shuffled viewpoints and shifting time-frames make for a rich mix of tones and standpoints, content and drama. In addition, this chopping and changing increases narrative tension. A prime example is Circe announcing that she fell out with Szu and doesn't want to see her again – "Our story is done." The reason for the rift is tantalisingly withheld and only made clear after much to-ing and fro-ing.
Teo's non-linear storytelling maximises suspense but also throws up a series of neat counterpoints. In one chapter, Amisa marries the love of her life; in the next, Szu's father leaves his wife and child. In another chapter the grown-up Circe watches Amisa in Ponti! ("the most expensive-seeming thing in this cheap movie"), and soon after remembers her looking small and wizened in her final days in hospital.
The novel is not only about the development of three women. Around their lives Teo also charts the progress of Singapore, from insignificant equatorial backwater to vibrant, gleaming, ultra-efficient city-state. As the decades go by and the characters lose touch, pass away or meditate on becoming old, useless or outdated, their surroundings are dramatically modernised. “You either kept up,” Amisa muses, “or got left behind in the dust and dereliction.”
Ponti is a brilliant examination of the power of friendship and the pull of memory. For Teo, it is also a good start to a promising career.