Mala Pandurang reviews A Crowd of Twisted Things by Dawn Farnham (Monsoon books: Singapore . 2013, 326 pages. USD $ 15.95)
A Crowd of Twisted Things is set in Singapore in 1950. Annie Collins returns from Australia to Singapore in May 1950, in search of her daughter Suzy, whom she has lost in the midst of the Second World War. Her quest takes us into the turbulent period of the Japanese occupation of the former British colony. Of Eurasian origin, Annie recounts her unhappy past as a hybrid of colonial circumstances, being ‘half a native of somewhere not white’. She seeks the escape route of a loveless marriage to fifty six year old Australian Ronald, who detests that their baby daughter has a darker complexion. Annie is grievously injured by Ronald just as the Japanese occupy the island, and this trauma imposes a loss of memory. She therefore does not know what has happened to her daughter.
Dawn Farnham interweaves the historical incident of what came to be termed as the ‘Maria Hertogh riots ’ into Annie’s search. These riots took place between 11th and 13th December 1950, after the Singapore Supreme court decided that thirteen year old Maria, who had been raised by a Malay- Muslim mother, should be handed back to her biological Dutch-Catholic parents. The legal proceedings instituted by the birth mother Adeline Hertogh, eight years after the birth of her daughter, is presented at the start of every chapter in the form of snippets from newspaper clippings. The legal ruling that the child be returned to her Dutch parents raised issues of racial and religious conflicts, and the city exploded into riots. The epilogue of the novel conveys the dramatic turns in Maria’s life after her sojourn in the Netherlands and her eventual return to Malaysia in 1998.
Annie Collin’s quest is a parallel narrative of the conflict between a birth mother who is intent on reclaiming her child, and the possible consequences of this process. Farnham attempts to delve into the emotional and cultural implications when a child,brought up by a surrogate mother from a totally different cultural and racial context, is returned to a Euro-centric milieu. While she tries to deal with the issues of child marriage and female circumcision with some sensitivity, some cultural bias tends to seep through.
Annie also has to deal with the inevitable gulf between birth-mother and child when she finally finds Suzy, her daughter. Annie also acknowledges her growing affection towards the child Joseph with whom she develops a strong bond, but ponders about the racial ramifications involved ‘ in letting a half-white single woman adopt a full-blood Malay child into pure white Australia.’
A Crowd of Twisted Things offers an insight into an important postcolonial phase in Singapore’s history – that of the period of world war II its aftermath. It also touches upon the imposition of the Malaysian Emergency and the deep-seated fear of the British of the rise of communism. As Dr. Paglar puts it to Annie: ‘History remembers war, you know, but not its aftermath. That can be traumatic and tragic as war itself. Picking up the pieces of your shattered life’ (212). The novel is also an exploration of what happens to women as prisoners of war. Annie’s time spent interned in a camp in 1945 is reconstructed for her by the other women who have cared for her during a period of which she remembers very little. As in other parts of the world, women who were suspected of being collaborators had to face the retribution of a post-war society impatient to settle deep bitter scores for years of misery and suffering. Also interwoven into the main narrative is a third strand involving strange recollections of Annie’s involvement with an oriental lover, who was perhaps a Japanese collaborator. Her memory is repressed perhaps of her own refusal to acknowledge the possibility of such a relationship.
A Crowd of Twisted Things is written in lucid style and brings to the fore issues of racial and cultural conflict, and problems of belonging of those who have been brought up as being neither European nor Oriental but ‘in-between’. It however stops short at a more complex exploration of the tricky terrain of identity, negotiation and being.
Mala Pandurang is the Head Department of English at the Dr BMN College, Mumbai. Her area of interests are postcolonial writing, gender studies, and migration narratives.