Singular Acts of Endearment is an enticing book, full of humour and fascinating trivia as well as profound and thought-provoking ideas. A multi-layered book that will stay with the reader long after the final page, says Mandy Pannett in this review.
‘Life is a series of happenings’ says Jasmine whose journal entries and notes provide the story lines for this novel. She repeats this statement several times until the very end (more on this later) and it provides a perfect basis for the anecdotal style of writing which Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé uses with such apparent ease together with a lightness of touch juxtaposed with moments that are both poignant and profound.
The actual narrative is incidental to a wider range of themes and topics. Jaz, together with some friends and family members, takes it on herself to care for Ah Gong who is dying of cancer and whose only consolation seems to lie in visiting gardens and devising plans for making a small one of his own. Against this backcloth of dying and death the author touches on ideas about friendships, relationships, the passing of adolescence, the significance or otherwise of memory and the past, the whole point of life with its series of happenings and the attempt to make sense of fragments.
Part of the strength, the sheer readability of ‘Singular Acts of Endearment’, lies in the author’s clever use of juxtapositions. There are many literary references but they are not just introduced and left to their own devices but are paralleled with the personal touch: ‘Heaney’s grandfather’, says Jaz, ‘sounds a lot like mine.’ Again: ‘Heaney’s grandfather liked the digging. So does Ah Gong.’ She wonders how Heaney’s friends reacted to the news of his death and relates it to her own relationships, her own emotions: ‘I wonder how I’d react if Jeremiah died on me.’
It is Desmond Kon’s skill with this anecdotal style that impresses me most. Chapters are short, anecdotes are brief and fast moving – sometimes tantalisingly so. I opened the book at random to find how rapidly, in just a few pages, the fragments spread out, defying the linear and turning chronology upside down. First we have some thoughts on symbolism inspired by a book that Jaz is reading for a sonnet assignment. ‘What makes us want to interpret things beyond their immediate presence and function?’ she asks. There’s no time for an answer because we move on to a story about Nina, the girl who saw angels, and we hear of her renting a DVD of Henry James ‘The Wings of the Dove’ and relating it to herself and a boy she is crazy about. Next is a mention of the Cathars and people on the run who maybe suffer survivor’s guilt which ‘happens to generations of a people who have been hunted down and killed.’ Immediately after this is an anecdote about Micah, whose father has cruelly and senselessly thrown out the aquarium the boy has been working on for years, tipping both water and fish down the sink. In an attempt to console him Uncle Han offers a brief history of the mollusc.
Life is a series of happenings says the narrator, the implication being that there is nothing more, the happenings are all there is. Certainly ‘Singular Acts of Endearment’ seems to underscore this idea. Characters are evasive and indecisive: ‘I can’t decide for myself if it’s possible to love someone with any real permanence’, says Jaz. Ah Gong doesn’t know what he is looking for with his digging. We are told that ‘he really didn’t know what it was he was trying to recover.’ The writing tasks described in the book involve creating scenes that don’t make sense, that are ‘truly and singly and eminently unreadable.’ One of the most powerful and moving chapters is called ‘no questions necessary’. ‘Don’t look for a larger meaning in this’, it says.
Yet there is one moment in this ‘long and aching list of examples’ when life, perhaps, is glimpsed as more than a series of happenings. Ah Gong is dying throughout the book and we are given no account of his final hours but only told of the ‘uncommon silence’ in the house in the days after the funeral. Jaz, however, does not add this death to the long list. ‘The truth was that this moment’, she says, ‘this staggering death of an old man I hardly knew but have come to love dearly, and with such clarity of thought and emotion – was not just a happening.’
‘Singular Acts of Endearment’ is an enticing book, full of humour and fascinating trivia as well as profound and thought-provoking ideas. A multi-layered book that will stay with the reader long after the final page.
Mandy Pannett works in the UK as a creative writing tutor. She has won prizes and been placed in international competitions and has judged several others. She is the author of The Onion Stone (novella) and of four poetry collections: Bee Purple and Frost Hollow (Oversteps Books), Allotments in the Orbital (Searle Publishing) and All the Invisibles (SPM Publications). Her new collection ‘Jongleur in the Courtyard’ will be published March/April 2015 by Indigo Dreams Publishing.