The Straits Times has at last reviewed my latest novel ‘Miss Seetoh in the World’, and, oh dear, it’s the worst review in my 30 years as a writer. I certainly hope to do better with them the next time!
Catherine Lim’s new novel lacks the challenging touch of her short story collection
In the largely forgettable Miss Seetoh In The World, one of the more memorable scenes has a teacher steering a hapless secondary school student past the pitfalls of the GCE O-level English paper, ensuring he secures a good result but not any actual proficiency in the language.
It is hard not to see parallels between that chapter and the book. Singapore writer Catherine Lim’s latest work supplies a protagonist and the requisite word count for a novel, and makes tired but popular jokes and token attempts at sensuality.
It follows a tested recipe that might ensure its success at local bookstores, failing, however, to achieve literary excellence.
The title and first chapter breathe promise, hinting at a potentially powerful, even explosive, tale of a newly widowed woman who has been freed from the pain of an unhappy marriage to find her place in the world.
In fact, the book is a circumlocutory narrative of separate vignettes linked by the rambling thoughts of the titular character, Miss Maria Seetoh, secondary school teacher and aspiring writer.
Her stifling wedded life and the death of her husband are exposited in cliches and ruminated over relentlessly in the first 200 pages: “Her marriage had become pure grotesquerie” or “When a woman married, it was not just to an individual but a whole community”, after which she suddenly takes second-place to a string of soap opera-like events involving star-crossed lovers or bitter political rivals.
Her observations of their triumphs and failures remain merely observations. They fail to be translated into epiphany or character evolution, leading to a disjointed reading experience and the jarring sense, at the end of the story, that the author has had a lot more fun than the reader.
Miss Seetoh has much in common with her creator, finding solace in the Botanic Gardens and enjoying, at various stages in her life, a fulfilling career as a teacher and an author.
The whiff of autobiography will titillate some readers and this reviewer certainly found it a sadly necessary distraction, for the fictional character is boring, never achieving self-actualisation, never quite convincing the reader of her passion either for writing or for the unsuitable men in her life.
Telling the reader is not the same as showing.
Her friends and associates are just as thinly developed: man-hungry single women and philandering older men fixat-ed on either matrimony or mating.
They may have careers and families but these take second-place to sexual exploits – or rather, talking about sex and reinforcing stereotypes of gender behaviour.
As characters, they seem to exist just to show Miss Seetoh’s superiority over the common herd and mirror the author’s dismal opinion of humanity.
They also bear frightening similarity to the inhabitants of Lim’s earlier works such as Or Else, The Lightning God And Other Stories (1980). Clearly, several years on, Singaporeans in the author’s world have not evolved much.
Perhaps these cardboard cut-outs are meant to be placeholders for snapshots of Singapore’s past and present.
Several milestones are referred to in the book, which is set in 1993, from prohibitions against using Singlish on stage to the frenzied fever of en-bloc property sales, but in another stunning example of squan- dered potential, these merely surface in the text rather than being used in an insightful manner.
To be fair, this book will satisfy some readers. The prose is competent and grammatical, if ultimately mechanical.
Take this description of Miss Seetoh’s literal disgust at married life: “She got up, rushed to the bathroom, closed the door and expelled her revulsion, which came out in a swift stream, into the toilet bowl. The bathroom, scene of so many private miseries, had become her most dependable room.”
Lim’s digs at political conditions and the media will probably make many laugh even if her jokes are recycled from earlier works.
I find the style grating, having never been fond of the coy reinvention of names – “Mr TPK our great Prime Minister” and “The National Times” – or recasting of incidents that local readers will immediately match to real-life counterparts.
The other problem is that I have read better work from Lim.
Great writing sings, it roars, scoring heart and brain as the writer creates new worlds with the companionship of words.
Lim came closest to this with her 1993 collection, A Woman’s Book Of Superlatives. Some of those stories were anti-climactic while others had too painfully simple a resolution, but the exploration of gender issues was emotionally honest and even challenging.
In Miss Seetoh In The World, however, it is hard to decide what the writer intends to achieve. There are clumsy attempts at a post-colonial comedy of manners and at heartland soap opera, but in the end, neither works.
The author needs to strike a comfortable balance between enticing overseas readers with the allure of the unusual and not alienating locals by exoticising familiar activities. Perhaps then her next work will actually be memorable.
If you like this, read: The author’s 1993 work, A Woman’s Book Of Superlatives, available as part of The Catherine Lim Collection (Marshall Cavendish International (Asia), $26.75, Books Kinokuniya). This short story collection is not for the faint-hearted as it explores the plight of women around the world, such as child brides sold to wealthy suitors and victims of domestic violence.