Ponti is about three Singaporean women: Szu, an awkward and lonely teen, Circe, Szu’s abrasive new (only) friend, and Amisa, Szu’s cruel mother. We start out in 2003 when Szu and Circe are 16 and meet in high school. We are gradually introduced to Amisa’s childhood and teenage years, and Circe’s life in 2020. It’s a great story about the relationships between these women, and their shared and personal histories.
The whole novel is set in Singapore. The oppressive, muggy heat and polluted atmosphere infect all the stages of the Ponti story. There’s sweat and stench everywhere.
Amisa, Szu’s mother, was the star of some vanity project horror films, when she was around 20 years old. She was a stunningly beautiful Pontianak – a female vampiric ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth. This wasn’t the launch of the fabulous career she wanted, and by the time Szu is 16, she runs a clairvoyant business from their run down home, with her sister. Szu’s mother is bitter and cruel, especially to Szu.
Szu and Circe’s friendship is similarly strained. Circe can be viscous with her humour and makes sharp, cutting comments. Their friendship is intense, but unbalanced. Circe is well off and is able to get along with other girls, while Szu is awkward, clingy, and struggles to fit in.
In 2020 Circe is recently divorced, working for a digital marketing company and still as viciously funny as she was as a teenager. Her descriptions of how she feels about a tapeworm she has is just… great. And disturbing. This theme of monsters runs throughout the book. Sometimes the characters act like monsters, while there’s also the tape worm and the Pontianak horror film throughout the story. We know from quite early on that Circe and Szu are no longer friends in 2020, and that something happened during their friendship at high school. Guilt is another theme that holds these characters together.
I read Ponti as an audiobook, read by Vera Chok, and it was really well narrated with a clear distinction between the different characters voices.
Since I’ve finished Ponti, I’ve read about the very scathing review of it that appeared in The Observer, and the backlash to this review of a debut novel. I do think a reviewers honesty is extremely important, but I disagree with this particular review because I loved this story! I have read books that have been very highly acclaimed, that I have hated though, so fair enough! (*cough* Reservoir 13 *cough*)
Overall I really enjoyed this story about these three complicated, interesting women. They all have flaws and this just makes the relationships more believable. I would really highly recommend Ponti!