Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Review of 'If I Could Tell You' by Lee Jing-Jing - Dennis Hamley

I am reviewing this debut novel for two main reasons. The first is that I think it's marvellous.  The second is that Jing was a pupil of mine on the Oxford Creative Writing Diploma and, in my reference in support of her (successful) application to the Masters degree course I stated that it was my professional opinion that she would one day be at least shortlisted for a major award, an opinion which, after reading this book, I stand by.

Product Details

If I Could Tell You was first published in Singapore in 2013 by Marshall Cavendish Editions and is not generally available in the UK except on Kindle.  It is the story of the last days of  a tower block in Singapore, Block 204, which is due to be demolished and the residents dispersed throughout the island, assigned with no choice in the matter to smaller flats. There are struggles ahead for all, both young and very, very old, as they try to adjust to the prospect of new lives in unfamiliar places. The common feeling is of resignation. Nobody protests.  In this society you take what you are given and keep quiet about it.

The central event is a suicide.  Shocking and sudden, yet itself regarded with weary inevitability, it becomes a focus for all the events which follow.  We meet other families in the block.  Many are in intolerable situations. How this sudden death has affected each family provides the main narrative impulse.  The author handles the many changing viewpoints adroitly: fraught emotional crises are vividly caught.  The characters are well-delineated and have lives which we can imagine extending beyond the printed page.

This was a setting and a situation unfamiliar to me.  Lee Jing-Jing made me come close to understanding that setting and the people who move through it and, through careful observation, sympathy and, above all, empathy, made me feel them as real flesh and blood people.  

A challenging agenda, beautifully carried out.  But what raises this novel to a very high place indeed is her prose style.  I can only describe it as 'unobtrusively resonant.'  It is quiet, moves easily like a precision instrument and slips its meanings and implications into your mind almost without your noticing them until you suddenly realise what it has done.  It is flexible enough to encompass many shades of meaning, many heights and depths of feeling, without strain.  You might even give it the adjective 'virtuoso', though the virtuosity is unassuming, hardly visible until you think about it afterwards.  Even so, I think I would recognise her style if it were presented to me unseen.

A novel of understanding and empathy.  I read it entranced.  And remember the name and the forecast.  You heard it here first!

Dennis Hamley