Sense of the Inevitable

Posted On: June 19, 2006
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An ex-colleague and friend wrote a book, while she was in the United States for more than a year (I figured). I was rather excited that a friend of mine had actually written a book and gotten it published. She had previously told me the name of her book, and that it was on the shelves of Kinokuniya. However, for the life of me, I could not remember the title of the book and thus never gotten down to searching for it in the stores.

Today, on a sudden whim, I Googled for her name and for Singapore authors. I ended up with some links on some alumni sites, which were broken and thus I could not confirm if that was related. There were a few links to some Business Asia’s archives, but somehow those were not browsable. In the end, I relied on the cached copy on Google and found what I was looking for.

The cached page revealed an old review by a guy named Wilson Goh, and thus I finally found the name of the book – “Sense of the Inevitable”. In the review, this is what he wrote of Michelle Lim Min Min’s book:

There are many more wonderful stories waiting to unfold, if only we can sit long enough to observe, listen and feel the people, places and moments around us.’

From the preface to this collection of short stories, Michelle Lim already shows an eagerness to share these eight stories she has collected from “everyday life, from memories, from sitting at and observing of people in kopitiams or neighbourhood coffeeshops, from the stories that my friends or loved ones have shared. What follows is a series of short stories that appeal with their simplicity and clarity; qualities that, however, render some of these self-same stories as sterile as English Composition model essays.

According to Robert DiYanni in Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry and Drama, modern realistic short stories tend to possess these typical features: firstly, plots are based on probability, illustrating a sequence of casually related incidents; secondly, the characters are recognisably human, and are motivated by identifiable social and psychological factors; thirdly, time and place are clearly established, with realistic rather than fantastic settings; and lastly, the elements plot, character, setting, style, point of view, irony, symbol and theme work toward a single effect, unifying the story.

These four points are unmistakeably present in all of Lim’s stories. For example, in ‘Wedding Dress’, Lynn searches for the perfect dress for a wedding dinner, arrives at the dinner, meets the groom Kelvin, who used to be her boyfriend, and his bride, gets drunk and is escorted back home.

Lynn’s search is a reaction motivated by her need to seek redress for her break-up with Kelvin:

‘She wanted to dazzle him again, to make him remember how he used to look at her, to make him feel a sense of regret for not waiting for her to settle down.’

The story takes place over just two days and in only two settings: the shopping centre where Lynn conducts her search for a dress, and the hotel where the wedding dinner is held. The elements of the story all work toward showing Lynn’s coming to terms with her need for something more than a superficial form of love, and this is obviously implied by the use of the perfect dress as a metaphor.

DiYanni elaborates further that the plot of a story consists of an arrangement of events which make up the story. He notes that typical fictional plots always begin with an exposition which provides the background for the events that unfold, describes the setting, and introduces the major characters. A conflict is subsequently introduced, which then leads to a crisis or moment of great tension. This conflict may reach a climax or turning point that determines the outcome through which the plot’s complications are sorted out and resolved.

This structure is evident throughout the book. Returning to ‘Wedding Dress’, the exposition introduces the main persona, Lynn, and her hunt for a dress in a shopping centre. The conflict in the story stems from Lynn’s having to attend her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and confront her feelings arising from being part of the event. It is this conflict which builds up to a moment of dramatic tension when she actually faces the newly-wed couple. Resolution comes after copious drinks and during the ride home, where Lynn finally comes to a new and stable understanding about the situation.

This pattern of building tension followed by resolution recurs in ‘Kitchen’, where the conflict reaches a peak when the mother-in-law has a heart attack, but which is resolved with her acceptance of daughter-in-law Sue’s style of managing the household.

This clarity of structure does well by not distracting from the key themes of the stories. The title of the book refers to the struggles of adapting to change, and these eight stories are linked by a common thread of dealing with loss.

‘”Young people have their own ways nowadays. We old folks have to change with the times, she said. If you are afraid that no one would pray for you during the festival, you should arrange for your ashes to be kept in the temple”‘

The sentiment expressed in the above quote is captured in ‘Demolishing Bekka Market’, where a traditional wet market has to make way for air-conditioned supermarkets:

‘With the debris drifting from the construction site, Kor Por’s garden became brown. Her flowers no longer bloomed. Some were wilting, perhaps choking from the dust… It did not help that Kor Por no longer tended to her garden as fervently as before; it was simply too noisy and dusty to stand outside to water the plants or till the soil like what she used to do every day.

Song Ma did not stay at the pavilion for very long. The dentist drill was starting again and her clothes were turning a rusty colour just by standing there for a while. She turned to say goodbye to Kor Por but the old lady was already walking away, without saying a goodbye to her.’

While the stories are strengthened by their shared theme, they leave much to be desired, coming off at times like school essays.

Lim’s characters, while effective in their representation of a range of archetypes from the Chinese community in Singapore, are still lacking. These archetypes unfortunately never go beyond stereotypes, and suffer from the simplicity and flatness of their presentation:

‘His father, an inveterate gambler and drinker, had disappeared for a few days with his friends for a gambling spree. His mother, a haggard woman who looked like she had one leg in the grave at the age of forty, was out washing clothes at other people’s houses. No one knew that the boy was raging with a fever and it went on for a day and a night. By the time his mother came home and had the old neighbour, who was also a Chinese herbalist, to restrain the fever, the damage to DaFanShu’s brains was irreparable.’

Lim’s sentences are also awkward at times, with a quaint use of syntax which betrays an adherence to direct translations of Chinese turns of phrase:

‘All these thoughts turned like troubled fishes in her head… The sound of her stilettos echoed faintly behind her, like someone had forgotten something behind.There was a brightness in his face as if this was the happiest day in his life.’

Lim takes a melancholy pleasure in these narratives from the past, but at such moments it feels as if she has soaked them in too much nostalgia:

‘We all ended up crying while the bed enclosed us in its comforting familiarity; memories unknown, stories untold. Yet, as we looked at the bed, it seemed to whisper its loneliness; its loss of the people who had lain on it, lived on it, and derived comfort from it. It spoke to us its wish, just like DaDa had spoken to San her last wish. During the meal, there was a constant chattering as my mother and Sue exchanged their chicken rice tips; my mother was interested to know how Sue managed to make the dish so tasty yet healthy. I watched them as they talked to each other, and as the heat from the soup rose gently, circling them in an intimate embrace.’

Overall, Lim’s approach does not really add anything new to the genre. Still, she possesses a well-schooled technique, and the stories can be said to be heartfelt, albeit cliched. Some readers, however, might well take comfort in the fact that the older Lim, Catherine, has a potential successor waiting in the wings.

QLRS Vol. 4 No. 4 Jul 2005

Well that’s quite a lengthy (and possibly overly critical?) review of the book. Here is what I can add from my own impressions. What the previous reviewer did was to compare Michelle Lim with Catherine Lim, which is not what most readers should do. While this is a credible enough first effort from a young writer, I find the stories lacked memorable-enough characters. They lacked a certain “oomph”, a punch, that makes the reader go “Ah that’s clever!”. One of the big questions that plague all Singaporean writes of fiction, I think, is how close should the conversations in the book be to that of real life? Do you really make it so close to reality that the Singaporean reader can instantly relate to the accent, thus leaving others out in the cold? Or should it be written in perfect English, without a hint of local slang, such that the general market will find it more acceptable? Striking the perfect balance, may indeed be tough. Or perhaps one of the good examples of balance can be drawn from “The Kite Runner”? I have no answer to that.

If you’re interested to find out more about the book, here’s the publisher’s item .

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