General fiction novel set in Singapore about family, career, love and identity
Content warning: alcoholism, family violence, fatphobia
It was time for my next running book and the title of this one caught my eye. I have spent a lot of time living in South-East Asia and I absolutely adore cooking with and consuming all soy sauces, so I was keen to see what this book was like. It was also mercifully short.
“Soy Sauce for Beginners: a novel” by Kirsten Chen and narrated by Nancy Wu is a general fiction novel set primarily in Singapore. Gretchen has moved back to Singapore leaving behind her marriage and career in San Francisco, USA. The family business is making premium soy sauce and, after moving back in with her parents, Gretchen also finds herself with a ready-made job and all the perks. However, while Gretchen struggles to face the reality of her mother’s alcoholism and her failing marriage, she is also forced to confront the truth of what is happening within the family business.
This was an easy book to listen to. Chen’s straightforward writing style and Wu’s flexible narration worked well together. I think the highlights for me were definitely the scenes set in the soy sauce factory, and learning more about how different flavours and styles are achieved through different fermenting techniques. Singapore is such a dynamic country, and I always enjoy reading books set there, so it was an interesting to read a perspective from a character who is resentful to be home.
However, there were a few things that didn’t quite land for me in this book. Although the premise was fairly uncomplicated, I did find it hard staying invested in the story towards the end. While I appreciate this book was published nearly 10 years ago, I did find a lot of the commentary about weight, especially Gretchen’s friend Frankie’s former weight, quite grating. Chen deliberately doesn’t always portray Gretchen in an especially positive light, and I understand this book is about personal growth, but it did feel at times to be to such an extent that it was hard to empathise with Gretchen.
A heartfelt book that maybe just needed a dash more soy sauce.
Dark mystery about a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family
Content warning: family violence, racial violence
When I first heard about this book, I knew immediately that it was a book I wanted to read. I lived in Indonesia for 5 years when I was very young, and another year for university, but have not read nearly as much fiction by Indonesian authors or set in Indonesia as I would like. I was already familiar with this author from her translation work, and after a bit of trouble finding a physical copy of the book (it has been republished in America under a different title), I found out that it was available as an audiobook. I was training for a run with one of my dogs (that we ended up not being able to go to anyway), and it was the perfect length and topic for my next listen.
“Under Your Wings” (published in the USA as “The Majesties”) by Tiffany Tsao and narrated by Nancy Wu is a mystery novel about a young woman called Gwendolyn Sulinado who is the sole survivor of a mass murder. As she lies in hospital on the brink of death, she reflects on her life and upbringing and tries to piece together what caused her twin sister Estella to poison her entire wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family.
This was a very enjoyable book for me and had lots of elements to hook me and keep me hooked. I have been lucky enough to attend some enormous Chinese weddings in South-East Asia and have experienced first hand some of the opulence that comes along with them, and I loved Tsao’s casual yet compelling descriptions of the wealth enjoyed by Gwendolyn’s family. While at university, I wrote a paper on the racism experienced by Chinese-Indonesians, particularly during the May 1998 riots, and I thought Tsao’s novel explored this historic racial tension from a unique and insightful point of view. Tsao acknowledges the privilege enjoyed by the Sulinados and other families in similar positions, and the necessary political deals and exploitation that leads to such extreme wealth. Tsao also acknowledges the tension between pribumi and Chinese-Indonesians goes two ways as discovered by Gwendolyn when exploring her family’s history.
Tsao also examines the issue of intermarriage between powerful families and how money, prestige and reputation are sometimes put before the safety and wellbeing of individual family members. One of my favourite parts of the book, however, was reading about Gwendolyn’s work mixing genetic engineering (something I love to read about), her passion for entomology and fashion to create beautiful dynamic garments. Wu was a perfect narrator for this story and her ear for accents captured the nuance of Chinese-Indonesians not only of different genders and ages, but who had studied in Australia as compared to the USA.
I think probably the only thing that I wasn’t completely sure about was the twist at the end. Without giving anything away and not to say that the ending didn’t fit the narrative, I felt that the story was already so delicate and complex, I didn’t think that it needed one more final reveal to make its point.
A beautifully written and beautifully narrated book that had me from the get-go.