By Balli Kaur Jaswal
So, one fine day in Singapore, my laptop didn’t work, and my iPad was dead, and I had nothing to do during dinner. So I went to my sister’s room and looked through the shelf, and one of the first books I saw was this one. It was published by the same company that published my brother’s book and so I recognised the layout. The author’s quite popular, so I’d also heard of her.
Set in the 1970’s to 90’s, it follows the life of a traditional Pubjabi family: two brothers and their unruly sister. The book is very interesting. I mean, at some point I thought to myself, “surely no family could be so unfortunate?” But I suppose some are, thank heavens not my own. They’re a very troubled family; each family member individually, but also collectively, they’re not the most functional family. Their mother’s absent, their father is harsh, Amrit the daughter is constantly in trouble, one of the brothers feels constantly unvalued, and the other is taking part in personally and politically troubling activities.
It’s very interesting. It follows their family through the microscopic pictures of their lives, but against this backdrop of change in Singapore, of the little protests and rebellions of siblings against the political manoeuvrings happening across a rapidly-developing nation. I thought it played with and between the two so well. It could have done better to be more seamless when trying to integrate their ‘Singaporean-ness’ into the writing – but I’ve never seen writing that did that perfectly, so I suppose this did better than most. It’s a story about family, and she really captured the nuances of that; the anger and the love, the support and the betrayal.
I’m not sure what exactly was lacking in this book. The plot followed beautifully, and there were quite a few twists (especially at the end) that really surprised me. The family itself was cohesive, nothing felt like it went too fast given the amount of time it covered. I suppose it was that it felt a bit contrived. Like I said earlier, “Could any family be so unfortunate?” It felt like it couldn’t be so – which might be my own bias given my knowledge of better families, I don’t know. But every member of this family was so broken in their own way, that it almost felt like she was trying to include as many themes and tropes as possible, at the expense of just letting the characters develop the way they naturally would. Some of the other books, like Penance by the Japanese author Kanae Minato, felt like they were just stories of people who happened to be women of colour and by women of colour – this wasn’t like that. It felt like I was to know, straight off the bat, that this was going to be An Important Book filled with Important Issues. That desire to be so much and do so much is what, in the end, made it feel less than it could have been.