Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sassy Schoolmarm

I'd originally picked up Catherine Lim's Miss Seetoh in the World along with a bunch of books to be reviewed in The Star but it was dropped to accommodate an interview piece related to her next book (A Watershed Election: Singapore’s GE 2011, I think). But the paper graciously permitted me to blog it instead.

Miss Seetoh , which was published last November, is "a very special book for two reasons", Lim blogs. "Firstly, it came at the end of the longest break - 7 years! - in my writing career, and secondly, it is the first novel to have a strong political component which might just make it my most controversial work of fiction."

I took a deep breath, held my nose and dived in.

Singaporean schoolteacher Maria Seetoh was brought up under conventional circumstances - typical of the female leads in Lim's novels. Seetoh's English is also very powderful one. Somewhat precocious as a child, she's the type that might have despaired her teachers and the nuns at her school, prompting them during meetings to ask colleagues, "How do you solve a problem like Maria..."

No surprise then, that she ended up teaching English at a creative writing class in secondary school. Her students are a joy to teach, and the classes are her Wonderland. She also has two friends, both teachers.

However, against her desire to buck religious and social norms, she had married a conservative Christian guy who'd rather she stayed at home, cooked, cleaned and made his children. Of course theirs was a loveless marriage, which ended when the guy died of an illness.

Seetoh's widowed mom disapproves of her newly liberated daughter's affair. Her ne'er-do-well stepbrother has gambled his way to loan shark hell and eventually takes his family and mother away to a new life in Malaysia.

And Seetoh sees stories everywhere, like how the Sixth Sense kid sees dead people.

She sees the story of her marriage in nine words coined by a student. She sees a story in the shared life of her two friends. She has a mind to respond to an anti-Singlish campaign by writing a story in Singlish. Musings on the Singaporean obsession with the GCE O-Level cert pulled odd bits of ideas in her head into a story.

The sad tale of her grandmother's life? She'd love to write about that; it'll be a short story, in the passive voice. When down on her luck one day, she thought she'd write a funny book. The love lives of her family's women? Write-worthy! Everything, it seems, can be put to paper.

Thing is, writing and telling stories is what this sassy Singaporean schoolmarm has been doing throughout the 480-odd pages of Miss Seetoh, and it soon dawns on the reader that the protagonist may be Lim's in-novel persona. The outspoken, unconventional Lim was once a teacher and apparently loves to write; her portfolio includes seven novels, a bunch of short story collections and two poetry books.

This hoagie of a novel looks like an attempt to make up for lost time. Snippets of Seetoh's life, from her childhood to her eventual liberation from the shackles of tradition, marriage and career are spliced with childhood recollections, socio-political commentary, existentialistic and introspective ponderings, questions, and musings, peppered and punctuated with pseudo-aphorisms and non sequiturs with tenuous ties to the storyline.

While talking about so-and-so, suddenly Seetoh recalls some mahjong quartet from a distant memory. Then, laments over the Singaporean obsession with "the five Cs" and stellar exam results and the island nation's barren pool of creativity. At least four pages on the conditional mood. Over five pages on love and the nature of things.

A chapter set in the botanical gardens sees her imagination take flight. On religion: "Someone had once said that those who abandoned God were left with a God-shaped hole that nothing could fill. Hers was being richly filled with all manner of things that did not even have names."

Of the gardens' visitors and inhabitants: "The great chain of happiness-seeking could be extended downwards to include the tiniest organisms inside each of [their] bodies, for surely even these primordial forms of life sought their own kind of happiness, and upwards to include the deities of Providence residing in those huge ageless trees, for surely even gods needed to be happy."

Various elements in the book don't segue well from one to the other. The reader is dragged out of a chapter of her life and then plunged into her thoughts or given a peek into the workings of a nanny state (as she sees it), before being yanked by the wrist towards the next chapter of her or someone else's life. It is one rough theme park ride that tries to pack too much into one circuit.

A huge pity, because Lim can really write. But here, she makes the reader work to uncover the rare displays of wit and wordcraft among the platitudes and flowery prose. The well-worn use of an author's avatar in this novel is unnecessary, as Lim is more than capable of social commentary without the need for literary stand-ins.

And the stepbrother going to Malaysia to escape from loan sharks says something about what Seetoh/the Malaysian-born Lim thinks about her adopted homeland.

When all of Seetoh's personal troubles are behind her and the political one looms - not a big one, as her contribution to the "earth-shattering political revelation" is but a footnote - the suspense and the political thriller parts kick in, but exits the stage a bit too soon, leaving us with barely a taste of what else the author can do.

Miss Seetoh is not a bad book, and none should doubt Lim's command of the language. It could be an even better book if she didn't work so hard to make it an all-in-one package.

Also published in The Malaysian Insider, 10 April 2013.

Miss Seetoh in the World
Catherine Lim
Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
487 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4328-36-4


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