Chua Kok Yee's debut short story collection starts off normally, then takes a turn into darker, more bizarre territory at the end of the second tale, where a nightclub singer apparently answers a song request from beyond the grave.
What follows is a smorgasbord of day-to-day, action, crime, thrillers, more ghostly tales and strange happenings and a bit of comedy. The superbly scary "My Number One" and "Perfect Prefect" benefited from sharp, 90-degree turns from mundane to macabre, complete with hair-raising endings, so his budding reputation as our Edgar Allen Poe is more or less assured.
Among the new and strange are also shades of the familiar. The "last message from beyond" plot ("Dead Cougar"), and devices such as character continuity between stories ("Dinner" and "Cruel Mother") reminded me of Shih-Li Kow's Ripples – could it be because she and Chua took the same creative writing programme?
"Sambal Without Anchovies", which evokes the very Malaysian (or rather, Yasmin Ahmad's Malaysian) warmth, comfort and sweetness of freshly made nasi lemak, is the first, best and most well-crafted story in the collection. It's a brief, brilliant look at love, family and the generation gap that tugs the heartstrings.
However, many of the following stories couldn't match the mastery of the first. It's Hanif, his wife and the dad, Pak Samad who will be remembered long after the book is put down.
An author's first book is rarely his best. While it's not necessary for one story to segue into another with velvety smoothness in a collection, this one has the feel of a hurriedly compiled volume of exercises for creative writing or storytelling techniques. Why did Silverfish Books published it "as is"? Tight deadlines, maybe?
Chua has heaps of imagination (look at "You Are What You Eat"), a warped sense of humour, and he writes pretty well. At the conclusion of this rather short collection of short stories, one is left to ponder what more he could have done, had he been given more time.
Categories: Book Reviews