Debut novella “If I could tell you” by Singaporean author Li Jing-Jing could be distilled down and summarized in its epigraph:
“A multitude of people and yet solitude” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Set in the heartlands of Singapore at an old Housing Development Board (HDB) block, it explores the lives residing inside these public flat units.
This is a story rich in local flavor, where characters use local slang and dress up in singlet and slippers amidst the humid tropical Southeast Asian environment. And behind every closed door, is a unique set of problems that in spite of family and spousal support, isolates each individual from others.
“If I said to him, I am still the same person, he would have kept silent; to him, it would sound like the most transparent of lies. There would be nothing left for us to do but stop calling, stop pretending to talk on the phone. I was left with the most tenuous of ties with my family through him and even that would be lost, perhaps for good, if I opened my mouth and spoke.”
The overall content well-explored the melancholic thought of being alone, lost physically, mentally or spiritually in a big city, but the execution is less than desirable.
Various mini-stories are strung together to construct the bigger plot and the key holding these sub-plots together is an anchor. In this case, there are two anchors, a suicide and the relocation of residents from their old dwellings, which unfortunately dilute the overall direction of the novella.
On top of that, it did not help that there are so many characters. Imagine nine characters mashed into 100 odd pages with nine different sets of problems, some of them recounting their lives backwards and others thinking ahead. The complexities of the plot, I felt, were stifled by the limited word count, where at times, I had to go back to re-read certain chapters for the different storylines to click.
“There must be words that capture exactly how I felt when they brought my daughter to me, that pleasure and regret when I held her for the first time and saw that she was not a boy. There must be words, too, for how I felt when I went through our photo album for the first time in years and noticed the darkness of his face… And this: a mix of shame, anger, and something else when I see my child these days.”
Despite the mixed feelings, in the end, I do wish to do justice to the novella given that it is a commendable effort for a debut novel steeped with local cultural references and the story plot left much food for thought after reading it.
“If I could tell you” is currently available on the Amazon Kindle store. The paperback version will be available worldwide from May 15 onwards.
For more information, you could check the book’s site HERE