Bright Landscapes by Daphne Lee. This is a collection of short stories by the celebrated former columnist for The Star. Lee is widely regarded as an authority on Children's Literature in English in the region; however this collection is adult fiction. Although Lee has published two other books as an Editor, this is her first book as an author. This slim volume of 150 pages contain 10 dark tales, most of which were entertaining but a few not quite fleshed out. What she succeeded in doing was to create contemporary stories with the hybrid/fusion of culture and folklore which is Malaysia.
I've noticed that Malaysian writers who write stories set in Malaysia tend to stick to their own cultural milieu, i.e. Chinese Malaysian writers tend to write stories set within Chinese community and culture, Malay Malaysians write about characters in their own community, Indian Malaysian writers write stories based on Indian culture, with Sri Lankans narrowing this down even further and so forth. When characters of different races appear in the stories, they tend to be token representations. Well Lee has actually broken this mold - her contemporary stories feature characters from the diverse communities which make up our country who take on the cultural tropes from different cultural traditions to produce their own unique hybrid culture.
Common threads which run through these stories include children and family, marriage, births and deaths, and oddly enough tigers.
My favourites were: After The Funeral, All Was Still and On Jugra Hill. After The Funeral is a chilling tale of abuse and abandonment perpetuated by the patriarch of a traditional Chinese family, told from the point of view of the teenaged granddaughter. The supernatural entity, created by the grandfather, who 'gave away' a severely handicapped child, is from Malay folklore. After the death of the grandfather, the creature is set lose and starts to haunt the family. The granddaughter searches for a way to put the creature ton rest and finds it in her own Chinese traditions. It should be noted that the story is so indirect and subtle, one has to connect the dots. But this is a matter of style.
All Was Still is an evocative and haunting tale, again featuring a female protagonist from a Chinese family (I think;) however the story draws on Malay folklore. It features at least three tiger spirits, and I felt grief and outrage at the acts of human cruelty which created them. It is beautifully written and I love the descriptions of the little girl in the story. As with After The Funeral, one has to connect the dots to piece the narrative together; the story also has an ambiguous ending which nevertheless will leave you feeling bereft.
On Jugra Hill is a hair-raising black comedy which has the potential to be developed into a lock door murder mystery. Fans of detective fiction will recognise the setting - a group of people stranded in a posh house in the middle of nowhere with a storm brewing in the horizon - although there is no dead body in this story. The characters have oddly familiar names of people in real life; I only wish they were more likeable. As for the plot, for some reason, I completely missed the clues the writer dropped and had a 'what just happened here?' jaw dropping moment! Still the story will carry you along on a wild ride and was hair raising fun!
The stories which didn't work for me were: Orang Minyak - can a woman be more lacking in agency and commonsense? I would have expected her maternal or survival instinct to kick in if only to save herself. Perhaps She is another story which I failed to understand, it seemed to be about a woman who abandoned her family and life in general, and had nightmares of being buried or being reborn by the earth. The third story called The Dead, was a woman who presumably died during childbirth and could not accept her fate; which was understandable enough.
The stories which could have done with a bit of tweaking were: The Pontianak, Princess, and The Tiger Bridegroom. In Pontianak, the narrator tells her two dinner guests the story of her uncle who married a pontianak. One gathers that the uncle had an affair with a bar maid, who may have died in childbirth. Two things bothered me about the story - one is the fact that the dinner guests, a gay couple, were so unlikeable but more importantly did not seem to serve any real purpose in the story. In settings like this, usually one or both guests knew something the narrator wanted to unearth, or trap them into admitting.
The second thing which bothered me were the errors in folklore. In the story, the uncle trapped the pontianak with a needle and red thread, in the purple heart of a banana tree. In traditional folklore, the pontianak is associated with the sundal harum malam (possibly the champaca or the pala tree) and not the banana grove; it is the orang minyak who haunts the banana grove. Also, traditionally, the pontianak does not feed on the body parts of men, she looks for the placenta of the newborn and also the fresh blood spilled during childbirth. The story would have been a lot more suspenseful, with more 'showing' and less 'telling.'
Princess is told in the style of a folktale crossed with a steamy romance novel. Although I was shocked at the fate which befell Nakhoda Ragam, my favourite character in all of Malay folklore, the story was intriguing and seemed to be another piece of the puzzle in the story of the legendary Princess of Mount Ledang. If you are interested in following the journey of the Princess, The Principal Girl has two tales relating to her: Girl on a Mountain by Preeta Samarasan and The Princess of Mount Ledang by Leela Chakrabarty. You can follow the trials and tribulation of Nakhoda Ragam in these three books of mine: Eight Treasures of the Dragon, Eight Fortunes of the Qilin and Eight Jewels of the Phoenix.
The Tiger Bridegroom is also told in the style of a folktale, and is quite an amusing and entertaining story. My only complaint is that the characters appeared to be caricatures, but that is a matter of personal preference.
The last story, Endless Night, is a story I've read before. And it is still as powerful and evocative, on rereading.