Through Ponti, we learn that one universal truth about love – paternal, romantic, platonic – is that it doesn’t ebb and flow. It falters, judders, gets lost and thrown out. It gets exposed and embarrassed, like a child. It is bled dry and shrivelled like fruit. We also learn that people can be a bit shit, and still feel love and still deserve love.
And What is Love, Exactly?
There might be a case for the argument that good stories, original allegories, real examples of human behaviour, are getting harder to come by. We are drowning in stories right now. We are beginning to tread uncomfortably familiar ground. And the most familiar ground of all is that of ordinary life experiences and relationships shoved under the microscope.
In Ponti, Sharlene Teo provides us with three ordinary lives; those of three ordinary women: the young horror movie actress Amisa in the late ‘70s, her own awkward and introverted daughter Szu in 2003, and Szu’s wiser friend Circe all grown up in 2020. The originality in these ordinary stories comes at us through their honesty. In simple terms, the events of these three women’s lives could be summed up as teen drama, family strife, struggles in love – typical affairs. But there is a brutal honesty at play here, as the girls are exposed as failures in one way or another. They are introverts, unpopular at school, unsuccessful at work. To be as honest as Teo herself has been: they’re losers.
“The classroom is so sweltering that all thirty-three of us sweat out half our body weight, a form of suffering which the girls most committed to their eating disorders view as beneficial and beautifying. The cooked classroom smells like Impulse deodorant and sanitary pads.”
Ponti doesn’t glamorise. It doesn’t discuss hope, dedication, or volition. It shows us three people whose lives are a bit shit. I was reminded of the cast of Bob’s Burgers – a cartoon depicting a working-class family who own a burger restaurant in a quiet US town. Each member of Bob’s family is clever or artistic in their own way, but they’re a bit shit at life. Not talented enough to be rich or famous, but full of heart and character nonetheless. Amisa, Szu, and Circe are the same way: they are people doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. And for their actions, in which they either succeed or they fail, we come to love them.
The three stories are told out of order, as we bounce through time from ‘70s to 2003 to 2020. Amisa grew up unhappy and is given the chance to star in a campy B-movie about a ghost of folklore: the Pontianak. Szu lives with her failed actress mother and her manipulative con-artist of an aunt and forms a sisterly bond with schoolmate Circe. Circe, in 2020, has a tapeworm, has gone through a divorce, and her company has been tasked with the promotion of a reboot of the film that made Szu’s mother famous: the titular Ponti. These women are weird enough to be both lovable and pitiable in equal measure.
Love is a Bit Toxic, Sometimes
A repeated motif in this novel is that of transparency and exposure. Szu’s mother and aunt Yunxi work as clairvoyant mediums who are visited by people looking for comfort. They – Yunxi especially – claim to be able to see into the souls of people to see what darkens their minds. There are other moments scattered across the pages of moments where characters feel as though they can see each other’s thoughts or feel exposed to the prying eyes and minds of others. Secrecy, and the denial of secrecy, plague the thoughts of these pitifully vulnerable people, lost in love as they are.
“As I smooth overpriced night cream on my face, I marvel at the irony of it: how I left one HDB flat and a marriage to move into a more impersonal, rootless dwelling … only to have the same thing happen. Tense, arid evenings, a stalemate of two, a man telling me to be kinder, better, to try harder; giving me advice I don’t want to hear, instructions.”
As they struggle with their secrets, their desires, and their failures, these girls have to contend with jealousy. That infamous phrase (which I have always found to be uncomfortably true) that goes ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ sums up much of the rhythm of these girls’ stories. Circe’s family are rich and comfortable, a life which Szu, of course, covets. Szu’s mother, on the other hand, is an enigmatic and charming obsession for the teenage Circe, who comes to gravitate towards Amisa. Their jealousies are nothing strange, especially for teenage girls, but rarely do we see such feelings and behaviours worn so blatantly on the sleeves of our characters. Once again, honesty in Ponti is queen.
The narrative choice to interweave these stories is not only bold but incredibly difficult to pull off. Teo must have plotted this out for months upon months to achieve a narrative which jumps through time but still flows as one. We learn more and more about Amisa through both her past and her future, all the while having her ultimate fate withheld from us. We see where Circe ends up, estranged from Szu, and are led along by the missing question of why for the entire novel. Teo keeps her secrets just as her characters keep theirs, and it is commendable to say the least.
Here is a raw, uncensored look into the lives of three losers. All women, written with honesty and affection. They are lovable in their corrupted but simple behaviours. They have guilty thoughts, suffer through jealousy, selfishness, and bad luck. They’re far more shit than the women we typically see in works by Teo’s contemporaries, and that is to be unquestionably celebrated. There is no romance here, only life. Real, raw, uncomfortable life.
Published by Pan Macmillan