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BOOK REVIEW: Ponti by Sharlene Teo

| 16 August 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Ponti by Sharlene Teo

April 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Contemporary / Literary


One day I will learn to be as expertly cruel as she is. She finds the weakness she wants behind the eyes, tucked within crow’s feet and worry lines, all that fear and blind hope transmitted in the smallest ticks and gestures. People are unaware of how much they want their weakness to be exploited; how much they want to be punished for being themselves. My mother locates the finest pinpoint of pain and presses on it.

2003, Singapore. Friendless and fatherless, sixteen-year-old Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, once a beautiful actress and now a hack medium performing séances with her sister in a rusty house. When Szu meets the privileged, acid-tongued Circe, an unlikely encounter develops into an intense friendship and offers Szu a means of escape from her mother’s alarming solitariness.

Szu and I were citizens of nowhere. We never felt a belonging. Not with the happy nor the popular nor even the outliers, the rebels. We were too gawky to be mysterious, too cautious to be wild, and too self-conscious to stand out. We thought our alienation was unique, and felt secretly enlivened by our discontentment; it meant we weren’t sheep.

Seventeen years later, Circe is struggling through a divorce in fraught and ever-changing Singapore when a project comes up at work: a remake of the cult seventies horror film series ‘Ponti’, the very project that defined Amisa’s short-lived film career. Suddenly Circe is knocked off balance: by memories of the two women she once knew, by guilt, and by a past that threatens her conscience.

By the time Amisa entered the Land of No Hope, I had developed an intensity of feeling towards her that hovered between a crush and intimidation. She was incorrigible and out of this world: this beautiful woman who broke her daughter’s heart every day as much as she continued to fascinate us both. Isn’t this what magazine mean by star quality: that ineffable thing, charisma?

Told from the perspectives of all three women, Ponti is about friendship and memory, about the things we do when we’re on the cusp of adulthood that haunt us years later. Beautifully written by debut author Sharlene Teo, and enormously atmospheric, Ponti marks the launch of an exciting new literary voice in the vein of Zadie Smith. 


The writing in Ponti is truly gorgeous and visceral and taps into some incredibly human feelings, especially as they relate to different female relationships.


While the writing stayed gorgeous throughout, the feeling of urgency did wane a little over time, as this was revealed to be a character driven novel in which very little actually happens. This is a story of not fitting in, disappointment, and living a life that fails to be spectacular, with a lot of introspection and observation making up the majority of this book. There are a few hints at coincidence and maybe something “other” going on, but this is never fully realised.

This story basically feels like a very realistic depiction of life as it is, and for that reason it might appeal to fans of people watching, or those who feel/felt like they’re not “in” on the societal conversation. But in the end, this was likely the downfall of the book for this reader.

It starts with some very tangible lines that anyone who went through an awkward phase in their teens will find it easy to relate to, but as it continues, some of the power is inevitably lost. Despite being set in Singapore, and events transpiring that an Australian reader will not have experienced, it does come with a feeling of “been there, done that”. Though it is, of course, interesting to see this depiction of unspectacular life in Singapore, with customs and settings that readers might not be familiar with, the story itself has a very familiar feeling.

In the end, this was a very well-written story, albeit one in which very little actually transpires. It looks at the female relationships most women experience from various angles, exploring the way these shape who we become and stick with us for decades afterwards.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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