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Book Review: The Sum of Our Follies

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Stranger than fiction


Looking for a little peace and quiet? You’re more likely to find it in the anonymity of a bustling city than the close confines of a small town.

Set in Lubok Sayong, a fictional Perak town with little but yearly floods and a lacklustre local legend to its name, The Sum Of Our Follies is a candid, arresting look at different lives lived in close proximity.

The tale unfolds from the perspective of Auyong, a middle-aged man, and Mary Anne, a keen orphan girl. The former, weathered and world-weary, left his city job as the manager of a supermarket – which sees more foot traffic in a day than the total population of Lubok Sayong – to supervise the town’s lychee canning factory.

And after surviving a road accident that claimed the lives of her new adoptive parents, Mary Anne awakes in a hospital bed in the rural town. Thanks to both choice and circumstance, these transplants from busy Kuala Lumpur find themselves causing ripples in a community of only 10,000 or so people.

The tale is hilarious and heartfelt, thanks to how Kow uses particular turns of phrases that make Lubok Sayong and its inhabitants – human or otherwise – stick around in your head for much longer than you expect them to.

Of special note is how the story has a firm grip on the element of surprise. What seemed at first to be an unassuming tale of small-town life turned out to be quite the page turner, thanks to faulty memories, untimely deaths, the power of belief – founded in reality or otherwise – and the mystery of Mary Anne’s birth.

Also in play is a rich cast of characters, including Mary Anne’s new guardian, Beevi. The impetuous old lady runs the homestay in which they reside, and harbours a penchant for both tall tales and straight talk.

Key political events and quirky cultural cornerstones, such as the inevitable frenzy over a VIP’s impending visit, are referenced in such a wry way that it startles you into a burst of laughter. You may even find yourself saddened by the depiction of certain events that hit too close to home. Previous efforts to “reform” effeminate boys via a boot camp – a scenario rooted in reality – proves that life can be stranger than fiction and more tragic by a mile. But those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, they say. It is the task of storytellers like Kow to hold up a mirror to our past and remind us of mistakes made, lest our faults fade from the nation’s collective memory and escape betterment.

The clash of characters also makes for an engaging and nuanced read, and the rich local context is sure to induce many pangs of recognition in Malaysian readers.

Even the issue of gentrification makes an appearance in the form of “culture vultures”, such as condescending tourists who descend upon backwater towns to assign more meaning than the mundane necessarily holds. A particular and personal delight was the mention of property developers who are all too eager to capitalise on old world charm after overdeveloping the cities they now call soulless.

No matter how briefly they appear, each voice feels full and fleshed out, resulting in refreshingly natural exchanges that are far from stilted. The experience is not too far removed from a fascinating, multi-partied conversation at the table next to yours in the local kopitiam or mamak stall.

It is a conversation you’d be happy to eavesdrop on for hours to come – even if it lacks any actual conclusion – and serves as a riveting reminder that the smallest of places, whether it be a fictional town or a modest-sized country like Malaysia, can birth the biggest of stories.

In fact, Kow’s first novel reads like a fairly seamless collection of short stories, which allows her to play to her strengths. She has been published in several short story collections and also issued her own collection,Ripples And Other Stories (2008). In fact, her skill in the form placed Kow on the shortlist for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize in Ireland (for Ripples) ahead of a longlist of formidable talents, including Ali Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, and James Lasdun.

And if The Sum Of Our Follies is any indication, Kow is a talent that deserves your attention, with her first novel being hopefully the first of many more forays into long-form fiction.

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