Ponti by Sharlene Teo
Ponti is a powerful and thoughtful literary debut novel. Set in Singapore, it follows the story of three troubled central characters – the narratives switching between the women. Amisa, a once beautiful actress in a cult horror movie series, now lives in a rundown house with her sister who performs seances. Stunningly beautiful from a young age, in the Ponti movies Amisa is a beautiful but bloodthirsty Pontianak (a female vampire-ghost from Malay mythology) who lures men to their deaths in a series of three 1970s horror films: Ponti!, Ponti 2, and Ponti 3: Curse of the Bomoh. But her career never went further than these movies, and after her husband walked out leaving her to raise Szu on her own, Amisa seems something of a monster in real life in the callous way she treats her only child, and she seems to be consumed with unhappiness and anger. Amisa tells her story of meeting her husband and working in the movies in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, and by the end of the book the reader has a good understanding of how her life went wrong.
Szu narrates the novel in 2003, a friendless, fatherless sixteen-year-old, with her mother, sick and dying. Her loneliness, awkwardness, and lack of confidence is palatable. When she meets acid-tongued Circe at school, they experience an intense friendship, and it allows Szu a means of escape from her unhappy home life. But this escape is short lived.
Circe narrates the novel in 2020. She is struggling with a divorce and is further unbalanced when a project comes up at work: the remake of the seventies horror movies Ponti. She is forced to confront her memories of Amisa and Szu, and the guilt that has plagued her for years.
All women in this novel are flawed and not very likable, but Sharlene Teo does show well how hurt is carried throughout the years into relationships. It’s an assured novel, the prose fresh and atmospheric. I also liked the way Sharlene Teo captures the sweaty, sticky heat of Singapore and the impenetrable haze of pollution. Ponti is a daring novel that is an intriguing mix of the modern and mythology, beauty and ugliness, and the tragedies that can make monsters of us.
Reviewer: Karen McMillan
Picador, RRP $34.99