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Sharlene Teo's trenchant, feverishly unique debut novel soars as it struggles through the complexities of monstrosity, womanhood and loneliness.

PONTI is centered on Szu, an uncomfortable, insecure teenage girl; her tenuous, wealthy best friend, Circe; and Szu's mother, Amisa, the former star of a once-cult classic film, Ponti. The book leans back in time to explore how Amisa came to be Ponti, and looks into the future, where Circe has never really been able to free herself from Szu and Amisa's influence. Teo allows us to explore Singapore over half a century, and we get to see the bizarreness of a city and the shifting of cultures through these three pairs of eyes. Wonderfully bizarre and at times risky with its narrative choices, PONTI pays off with a satisfying kind of hungry glory.

"Wonderfully bizarre and at times risky with its narrative choices, PONTI pays off with a satisfying kind of hungry glory."

Ponti, which is a B-movie sort of horror flick that never has the gall or budget to go full gore, centers on a folkloric figure. The Pontianak (which is a real creature from Malay folklore, though the movie is Teo's creation) is a vengeful, vampiric woman who devours men. The movie sticks with Amisa, lingering on her skin and in her identity --- even though filming was a lifetime ago and nothing ever came of her film career. It haunts her and her daughter, which Circe comes to witness.

The notion of the woman monster pervades throughout the novel, in brilliant and creative ways. The woman monstrous, the woman empowered enough to be a villain, the woman desperate enough to devour and destroy. The woman starved into madness by loneliness, into cruelty by injustice. No one in this book is one thing --- blameless, heartless or angelic --- least of all the women. These are complete characters, navigating the messy, tenuous existence that is life.

Teo's writing bites its teeth into the reader and refuses to let go until the last word. PONTI is full of surprises, reveling in the small secrets we keep from ourselves and others, and following them through the years to see where they lead us. There are moments of levity and humor here, but they're steeped in strange intensity. The novel is disquieting, even unsettling at times, but Teo beautifully anchors us to her three main characters, and I was more than content to trust her, to discover where she'd let them lead me.

PONTI explores a different perspective of motherhood, family and friendship than what I'm used to, and I loved reading about the intricacies of Amisa's relationships with herself and others. The voices of all three of these women are ferocious and unapologetic, even Szu's unsure one, and they were fiercely refreshing to read.

Bizarre and vivid, desperate and surreal, PONTI is a dark, delicious read.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on October 5, 2018

by Sharlene Teo

  • Publication Date: September 24, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 150117312X
  • ISBN-13: 9781501173127