Friday, 11 April 2008

Pocket-Sized Weekend Drama

I wasn't overly fond of this book, but it was still a good read - short and sweet. Will the author be at Readings someday? One can hope.

Foul play

first published in The Star, 11 April 2008

Cerpen is a word I haven't heard of since I left school. It perfectly sums up Lee Su-Ann's The Curse, the second prizewinner in the English Novel Category of the Utusan Group's Young Adult Literature Competition of 2005. It has since been published and ready to enthral sceptics of local literature.

The Curse showcases village girl Azreen, who takes a sabbatical from her studies overseas and returns to her hometown in her sleepy village in an island south of Langkawi. Her homecoming is greeted by the tragic death of her sister Mahduri, the fair blossom of the unnamed village. The incident leaves her parents traumatised, especially her mother, whose senility becomes more pronounced.

In the aftermath of her sister's end, possibly due to foul play, a strange pall hangs over the village. There's the token ghostly figure in white. Making things worse with allusions of a curse is Puan Normala the village gossip, who is guaranteed to get under your skin.

Sinking into that familiar fugue that follows the loss of a loved one, Azreen revisits memories of her youth, good and bad. She finds no comfort from her sullen father or delirious mother. Thankfully, at no point does our heroine go into Nancy Drew mode. Throughout the novel we are informed via flashbacks that our heroine is no typical village girl, even in her younger days: tomboyish, headstrong and not above talking back to her elders. Which might explain her estrangement from her parents.

Main distractions come in the form of Mohd Asraf, the hot-headed village hunk, whom Azreen had a crush on in her younger days. There's also the mysterious outcast, an old lady whom Azreen befriends. Spicing things further is Mahduri's recent marriage to the village headman, the jealous fits of the headman’s first wife, and some livestock that shared the victim's fate.

Was Mahduri murdered? Is there really a vengeful spirit stalking the village? Will Azreen get the guy? Who, or what killed the animals? Will it ever stop raining? Are Mahduri's parents Bollywood fans? And why won't that irritating Puan Normala just shut up? I bet you’d like to know.

At first glance, it doesn't look like much. It is almost pocket-sized, and borrows a lot from existing works. Mahsuri legend? Check. Vengeful spirits? Check. Rip-off of Stephenie Meyer's cover to New Moon, complete with bloodied white flower? Check. Script from a typical Drama Minggu Ini? Check. Compensation for all that comes in the believable portrayal of the rural Malay village and its inhabitants.

The level of suspense is quite credible, but the execution is hardly subtle. Hints pointing to something sinister in Mahduri's demise start falling like ripe durians about halfway through the story. Thankfully, they will all miss their mark, and we are thus spared from a predictable ending.

Lack of originality aside, there aren't a lot of issues with The Curse. Its small size is actually an advantage. It probably kept the author focused on telling the story without any added fluff – all the elements of one good story in one minuscule package. I'm still amazed at how the author pulled it off.

The Curse is further proof that the local literary scene is neither dead nor moribund. This edition is a nice comfortable read for everybody – especially those with short attention span – as opposed to that 700-odd page international award-winning bestseller.

Plus, it's actually readable.

The Curse
Lee Su Ann
Utusan Publications & Distributors Sdn Bhd
232 pages
ISBN: 978-967-61-1971-7


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