Read Global: 5 Great Novels of Southeast Asia

One of my favorite books out this fall is Ponti, a striking debut from Singaporean author Sharlene Teo. It’s the second book I’ve read taking place in Singapore (if you count Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy as one story), and I find the descriptions of the city completely intoxicating. If you’re looking to spread your knowledge of Asian fiction beyond the powerhouses of China, Japan, and India, these titles are a great start:

Singapore: Ponti, by Sharlene Teo, $23.40, hardcover

During a pivotal year in her life, teenager Szu befriends prickly Circe. Though their friendship is brief, and based on mutual feelings of being outsiders in their Singapore high school, it is intense, especially during Szu’s mother’s illness. Szu’s mother Amisa is a beautiful and complex woman who was the star of a campy horror franchise about a local legend, the deadly and ghostly Pontianak.

Narrated by a teenage Szu, an adult Circe, and a third-person perspective following Amisa’s early adulthood, Ponti weaves the story of three women adrift. Young Szu is petulant, hilarious, and insecure, clinging a bit too tightly to a new friend. Young Amisa, growing up in the 70s and 80s, believes in her star power even as her youth fades. And Circe, working in near-future Singapore and recently divorced, can’t shake the memories of her old friend Szu and her formidable mother.

Ponti is full of oppressive heat, sickly detail, sticky candies and sweaty odors, and disappointment. But it is also a story of fierce individuals, dry humor, and possible redemption. An unsentimental but beautiful female-driven narrative from an exciting debut author.

Indonesia: Man Tiger, by Eka Kurniawan, $17.06, paperback

In a small Indonesian village, nineteen-year-old Margio kills his neighbor, aging playboy Anwar Sadat. To be more precise, the young man rips out Sadat’s throat with his teeth, which he is able to do because he’s “inherited” a white female tiger spirit that inhabits his body—Kurniawan’s slight twist on an old Indonesian folk belief. Margio’s guilt is presented as fact from the very first line: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.” Despite this utter lack of doubt, Man Tiger is, at its core, a mystery.

The puzzle here is not who murdered the man, or even how, but why. With the murderer and murder weapon firmly established, Kurniawan slowly builds to a devastating, emotional climax. A taut, circular fable about inheritance and consequence, Man Tiger is a brief but haunting novel of gruesome beauty that also gives a vivid portrait of life in rural Indonesia.

The Philippines: Smaller and Smaller Circles, by F.H. Batacan, $14.36, paperback

A brilliant literary crime novel that won the National Book Award in the Philippines, this book was published in 1999 but wasn’t available in the US until 2015. Gritty as a noir, but also borrowing from the popular convention of a church-official-as-amateur sleuth, the novel follows Father Gus Saenz on the trail of a serial killer stalking young men in Payatas, the colossal dump outside of Manila.

Saenz is a Jesuit priest whose determination to hold Filipino church officials accountable for their abuses has made him some enemies in the church hierarchy. But he is also a respected forensic anthropologist who’s been tapped by local law enforcement to help out in cases where resources are scarce. So when the eviscerated bodies of preteen boys begin to appear in the Payatas trash heaps, Saenz and protégé, psychologist Father Jerome Lucero, dedicate themselves to tracking down the monster preying on these impoverished children. Hailed as the first crime novel to come out of the Philippines, Smaller and Smaller Circles is both a window into the deep roots of Catholic life in the Philippines and a fast-paced, thrilling murder mystery.

Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, $14.39, paperback

In this Man Booker Prize nominee, Yun Ling Teoh returns to Malaysia after studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals. Yun Ling, herself the lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling asks Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

Eng, Malaysian native and the author of the bestselling The Gift of Rain, reveals the post-war peninsula with eloquence and grace in this lovely piece of historical fiction.

Vietnam: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, $14.40, paperback

Did I write this whole post just to recommend The Sympathizer yet again? No (but also kind of). Though author Viet Thanh Nguyen came to America as a refugee when he was a young child, and a significant portion of the book takes place stateside, this book is still born of the Vietnamese experience in both countries, and some of its most memorable moments take place in Vietnam.

An unnamed narrator, known only as the Captain, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties–a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war. He was able to escape during the fall of Saigon due to his status and close relationship with a Vietnamese army general, and gets safe passage to the U.S. But while the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending dispatches back to the Communist regime in Vietnam. As the Captain navigates his double life, he falls in love, becomes a consultant for a Hollywood war film, and is eventually led back to Vietnam and the novel’s shocking climax.

A wry, gripping, and devastatingly intelligent novel, The Sympathizer was a critical hit and bestseller for many reasons, not the least of which is its dedication to presenting a new breed of narratives about the Vietnam war.

–Annie

 

 

 

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