by Sharlene Teo
Book #5 in the 2019 Rare Birds Reading Challenge
Ponti opens in 2003 and introduces three women: 16-year-old Szu, her mother, a once beautiful actress named Amisa, and Circe, Szu’s unlikely friend and confidant. Moving the story 17 years on, in 2020, Circe is struggling through a divorce in Singapore when a project comes up at work: a remake of the cult seventies horror film series ‘Ponti’, the very project that defined Amisa’s short-lived film career. Suddenly Circe is knocked off balance by memories of the two women she once knew, by guilt, and by a past that is threatening her conscience.
“Ponti” is the fifth book of the year from the Rare Birds Book Club. I’ve enjoyed most of the books they have sent me, but this is the first one I’ve truly loved.
This book is a refreshingly original character study of three women; Szu, her mother and her best friend Circe. We meet these characters in three different times; past, present and future.
I’d say Szu was the main character here. Living in the shadow of her mother’s success, her present is 2003. She’s a teenage girl struggling through high-school as a bit of a misfit. She’s awkward, she’s not the most attractive or popular of girls and she constantly feels that she’s disappointment.
“It’s reassuring to be reminded that we are all full of shit. It makes me feel united with my fellow humans”
Szu’s mother Amisa’s story is told in the past, set around 1970. Unlike Szu’s chapters, this story is told in the third person. We learn how Amisa came to be the leading lady in a trilogy of cult horror movies and how she grew and flourished from being a young girl to becoming a mother.
And then finally Circe. Circe is living in 2020, she’s in her mid-thirties, she’s newly divorced and she’s become insightful and reflective, looking back at her school days with Szu.
Each of these woman has a story to tell and a personality which shines through. It’s difficult to tell you what actually happens and there’s definitely not a strong plot (there’s no massive drama or plot twist to speak of) so don’t go in expecting something shocking around the corner. Instead “Ponti” is character driven and like a kind of coming-of-age story, Teo uses these three ladies to explore just what it means to be a woman at different stages of life.
For me, Teo’s writing is powerful, but so subtle, casual and chatty. I was engrossed in this book while reading and found myself truly immersed in the humidity of urban Singapore.