‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes and it would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, says Anuradha Kumar in this review of The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim (Aurora Metro Press, 2014, pp 363).
In Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, there is an entire section of photographs and wall displays that show how the Singapore River was transformed in the 1970s. The river was once famous for the hawker stalls along its banks that drew people from all over the city, the shanties that ran along, the vegetable plots sustained by those who lived by it and the fishing and other bumboats that plied at all hours. Yet all this was to change in the 1970s, soon after Singapore came into being as an independent republic. Now besides the museum, there is the lovely much sought after Clarke Quay area, where people hang around at riverside cafes, the only boats that ply are those that take tourists around, and down the many bridges that cross the river, while glass-fronted tall buildings stare down at all this. But the river changed around the 1970s and Suchen Lim’s book writes of this as a time crucial to Ping and Weng, the two characters whose intertwined story drives much of her book.
Ping’s story begins a decade or so before this. As a young girl she is subjected to routine humiliations by people who refer to her derogatorily; she also realizes that she must refer to her mother as Ah-ku and never acknowledge their relationship, neither openly nor to herself. Yet she also sees a fiery side to Ah-ku, who marches to the house of wealthy state official when he has chosen to insult her despite seeking her favours. Ah-ku, meaning aunt in Cantonese, is a popular songstress who performs in the city’s clubs, and has wealthy clients who she has to please. Ping, though, also knows the terrifying insecurity that haunts her, should her little success vanish.
It is a precarious childhood and Weng appears as a kind of saviour. He helps Ping first sell vegetables, and then it is his father who is her first teacher or ‘shiku’ of the pipa, the traditional Chinese stringed instrument that Ah-ku has forbidden her to ever play. For a time, Ping is happy in a way, even when Ah-ku chooses to suddenly leave for Hong Kong. Ping is left in the care of local guardians, the owners of the shop house, her mother’s former landlords and for a while her life is almost idyllic.
This is among the most interesting parts of the novel, as Lim details Ping’s confusions, her emotional dilemmas, her tentative glimpses of happiness and then the descriptions of the Singapore River as it once was. But an unexpected incident prompts a shocked and upset Ping to return to Ah-ku. The latter has returned from Hong Kong and is now married into a wealthy business family of the Changs. She is still Ah-ku, still distant but Ping has a more privileged life now. Yet her friendship with Weng continues in a way, but this too is doomed.
It is the time when Singapore had just been created. The desire of its new leaders is to create a modern state, and the river and its cleaning campaign is a metaphor of what Singapore is to become. All this implies that people such as Weng’s family, Noodle Ting who is married to Weng’s sister, soon face the threat of eviction. They and others who live along the river are to move to impressive new “towns”, where the Housing Development Board has built standardized apartments for all. But people such as Weng’s father have their hearts tied to the river. The river is where his wife, Weng’s mother died and he knows that her soul lives on there still.
It is at this time that events take another turn in Ping’s life. She is made to move to the US, on a scholarship that she should, as Ah-ku declares, rightly be grateful for. Weng, unaware of this, throws himself first in the fight for the hawker’s rights. He is thrown into jail, labelled a communist and comes out hardened and embittered. He is determined, however, to make a success of himself, and does in time become a wonderful player of the traditional Chinese flute called the dizi.
Though the story is told in time spans that intersperse each other, the latter half of Ping and Weng’s lives moves in fast-forward fashion, almost at a breakneck speed. There is none of that leisureliness that filled the earlier half of the novel. Ping comes to have a successful career as a professor of music, she plays the pipa, tries to introduce different sounds of East Asia into western music but her personal life isn’t so happy.
Ping and Weng meet almost thirty years later. When Ping returns, it is to Ah-ku’s sudden death, and there she is reunited with her family. She also sees some kind of completion to her own past. All of this is told to us, sometimes in Weng’s voice, sometimes in the voice of the Amah who tells Ping a lot of Ah-ku’s reality after her mother is dead.
Sometimes a novel has serious ambitions, and this novel is sweeping, almost all-encompassing of the Singapore story. Meira Chand’s novel, ‘A Different Sky’ tells of Singapore in the early 20th century. Chand’s novel is also a love story of Mei Lan and Howard, two people with different identities who come together symbolizing almost what Singapore is about. Lim’s ‘The River’s Song’ is a story of the modern day Singapore, and then it is also a love story. Both novels grapple with much the same issues of identity, history, a person’s roots and the concept of home.
Moreover, the manner in which a character’s life shapes out in a novel is entirely the novelist’s prerogative – at times. It is interesting though, how Lim chooses not to probe; rather there is much that is left out of the lives of the Indian characters, two of them, who do make an appearance in her novel of modern day Singapore. There is Ping’s father who as the amah reveals to her much later, was an Indian which explains to Ping her different skin colour. This had at times drawn unwanted attention to her as a child. Jeev, the man she was married to briefly, is also Indian. The marriage does not last for reasons never specified. Jeev is full of humour, has his own quirks which mark him out as eccentric but never hateful. He remains supportive of Ping and her career but nothing much is gleaned about him or why their marital relationship floundered.
At the end of Lim’s book, it is Ah-ku who does appear in very many ways, the story’s central character. She is not a character one finds easy to like and this fact itself speaks of her strength of character and will power, and Lim brings this out wonderfully. Ah-ku’s spirited nature, the ways she remade herself, rising from sheer insignificance to someone much loved, mirrors the river itself as it runs through Singapore. Suchen Christine Lim moves her narrative between what happens in the lives of Ping and Weng, and there is indeed much that is left unknown about Ah-ku, so much so, that in the end, as with Ping, Ah-ku’s life has to be explained to us. This often happens with a novel of ideas, and ‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes. It would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, for the book maintains that careful balance between story and idea, and Lim’s wonderful control of the narrative structure for the most part, assures the reader that while all endings will not be neat, the story will still be complete in every sense.
Anu Kumar is a novelist and writer who lives in Maryland, US.