A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Lee Jing-Jing’s novel If I Could Tell You is haunting, affectionate, honest, and placidly down-to-earth. I couldn’t put it down: her writing is beautifully subtle, and the story winds you in unresistingly. Moments of high drama occur in the story but, because they’re narrated through the internal voices of the characters, we read them as they happened, not as an over-excited or sentimental narrator might have wanted to us to.
Block 204 in a working-class quarter of Singapore is about to be demolished, and the residents are being rehoused. The new apartments are almost finished, and will be larger and more convenient than the old flats. But some people don’t want to leave, some people are completely bewildered about leaving, and some are way too busy to think about it; it’s just a detail in their lives. But one of the residents is so confused about his future that he does something drastic, and the story unfolds around the effects of what he did like ripples from a stone flung into a pond. What we end up with is the portrait of a community, and of Singapore now and in the past.
I visited Singapore some years ago for exactly three days, and I really liked it. I also know full well that it’s a rather scarily paternalistic state, with rigid laws about no litter, no beggars, and modest, respectable clothing. Reading If Could Tell You brought the heat back, the daily torrential ten-minute showers, and the strangely sterile and tidy built-up areas decorated by multicoloured street trees constructed by wiring two flowering trunks together. Singapore is a clean and bland frontage with air-conditioning units sticking out from the unseen backs of the buildings like the exposed inner workings of a car. The unsightly is simply not supposed to be seen.
In the novel, I don’t know how Alex got away with living rough in a tent, or how the callous boss of the Bangladeshi guest workers got away with housing them in what sounds like a container, but tourists don’t see those parts, or that kind of living. Nonetheless, I felt I knew what Jing-Jing was writing about; the stories and the details brought back recollections from even my meagre store. Each character narrates a part of their story, as if an interviewer had eavesdropped on their thoughts from that day, and so the life of Block 204 grows and creeps into our understanding like a tropical vine: fast to grow, strong and full of vigour. The names of the characters – some Malay, some Chinese, some English – and the languages they speak, bring Singapore to life as a city to work and live in, a very satisfying way. The varieties of voice aren’t a fractured single voice, but a highly believable multiplicity of lives. I want to read more from Lee Jing-Jing; I think she has a strong future ahead as a novelist of heart and mind.
Lee Jing-Jing, If I Could Tell You (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2013), ISBN 9-789814-398626
Kate podcasts on the books she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com