Malaysia: the world wide web


One of the lovely things about trying to find a book to read from every country in the world is the connections you make along the way. I’m continually delighted by the thoughtfulness of the people who stop by this blog and take time to comment and make suggestions of titles I could include or ways that I could find interesting books.

So I was particularly touched when one visitor, Rafidah, offered to go to bookshops in Malaysia and Singapore on my behalf and post me some titles. Intrigued (and a little nervous) to see what she would come up with, I waited for the parcel to arrive.

As it turned out, I had no need to worry. Rafidah could hardly have chosen a more appropriate (or enjoyable) book than Ripples and other stories by English language writer Shih-Li Kow.

Styled as a collection of short stories, and shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the book is actually more like a novel in which moments in characters’ lives are explored as they weave in and out of each others’ existences, tracing a web of associations that stretches across Malaysian society and out around the world.

The structure reminded me a little of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, except that Kow is much fleeter of foot, giving momentary glimpses and snatches of experience where Mitchell offers weighty helpings of exposition. Her supreme talent is her ability to portray voices, which she establishes with gutsy and outrageous Aunty So and So in the opening story ‘One Thing at a Time’ and maintains in various forms throughout.

What comes across is Kow’s great love for and interest in people. This is evident in her painstaking attention to detail and the way she is able to depict the conflicting motivations that send her characters ricocheting off each other throughout the book. So we hear of the hypocrisy of the houseproud woman who looks on dengue fever as a lower class disease, the paranoia of the city worker for whom sanity constitutes a myriad of niggling worries and fears, and the complex reactions of the neglected child who finds a kind of love in the attentions of a paedophile.

Often, in fact, the camera is pointed at some small detail while the major events take place on the edge of the scene, almost out of focus, as in the case of ‘News from Home’, where Josie spends the entire letter to her estranged brother talking about the death (and afterlife) of their mother’s cat.

Also interesting are the shifts between genres. Realism jostles with fairy tales, ghost stories, magical realism and much more. We find stories set in the afterlife and stories where characters have shapeshifting faces or the ability to swallow cats whole, alongside riffs on meetings, walks in the park and the rivalry of street traders. The result is a rich and full picture of human experience in which the doors of perception swing open and closed between reality and the weird landscape of the psyche.

To my mind, the key to the collection is not the title piece ‘Ripples’, which focuses on an encounter with a photographer and a discussion of how you capture a moment, but ‘A Gift of Flowers’, a story in which a bouquet is passed from one person to another until part of it ends up back with the original purchaser, potentially with life and death consequences.

This sense of the way we impact on one another and how minute details can change the world is at the heart of Kow’s work, and is what makes Ripples and other stories an engrossing and memorable read. Thanks Rafidah.

Ripples and other stories by Shih-Li Kow. Silverfish Books (2008)

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