Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Ponti is a multi-perspective and non-linear exploration of female relationships and their complexities, interspersed with the impact that a series of Singaporean horror films (Ponti 1-3) had on three women. Through alternating perspective chapters that dance between these time frames, we experience the making and unraveling of the women and their relationships all at once.

We follow the perspectives of Amisa, a mother who starred in these films as the title monster-like character, her daughter Szu, and Szu’s friend Circe. Amisa’s role in these films took place in the late 1960s/early 1970s, so this forms the basis for one of the time periods the narrative is told from. Interestingly, Amisa’s chapters are the only ones told in the third person, almost mirroring her literal role as an actress and being the subject of viewing. Both Szu and Circe’s chapters as first person narratives, so we slip into their mindset while they are sixteen-year olds in 2003, and as thirty-three year old women becoming reunited again in 2020.

What I found most effective, and perhaps did not appreciate until quite late in the novel, was the central role that the Ponti films played in the development of each of the women, but also in the way that their relationships became fractured because of it in some way. Szu and Amisa have a troubled mother-daughter relationship from very early in the novel, and Szu often describes Amisa interchangeably in the same monster-like language that she uses for her character in the Ponti films. We also see how Szu and Circe’s relationship changes over time, in a way still as a byproduct of the films. None of the women aew presented in a particularly likable manner, with more of the subtleties of their character traits left until quite late in the narrative to be unearthed. Its an effective discussion about people being victims of their circumstances in a way, and not being told every detail at the onset of the novel was an effective device to draw this introspection out.

I really enjoyed this novel, and just flew through the second half particularly. I think the characters are written both in a way that gives agency to the experience of growing up as a woman in Singapore, but also with a lens of universality that makes their experiences identifiable more broadly. I found Teo’s language quite gritty and sometimes confronting (I’m thinking particularly of the extensive references to bowel movements and intestinal worms, for example!), but I look forward to her next book as her style is refreshing and unique.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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