Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.
Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles. The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.
Weng never leaves Singapore. He feels, ‘This is my country. To leave is to admit defeat.’ Weng has an amazing journey through pain, experience and violence to become an established dizi player. Both Weng and Ping pirouette skyward in their careers as musicians (Ping plays the pipa) but are left with emptiness in their personal lives. The novel ends with a tone of hope as Ping and Weng play together and ‘the dizi leads the pipa out of the desert plain’.
The major streams that wind through the novel are not only Weng and Ping’s passionate need for each other but also the 1977 clean up and its impact on the people who lived by and around the river. Suchen has explored the changes wrought in the dynamics of human relationships and the society by the sudden modernization thrust on them by the government.
As one sees the sculptures that line the Singapore River, one gets a glimpse of the life that Suchen has so skilfully wrought in her multi-layered saga. She delves deep beyond the sculpted carefree lives of the children bathing in the river – a song of how the river meandered through the lives and nourished the people that lived along it and how later, despite the dissonance in their lives, the waterway continued to bind them together. It is interesting to see how her writing romanticizes life along the Singapore River while contemporary writer Isa Kamari’s perceives the same as a place ‘strewn with rubbish and carcass’, in his novel One Earth where his heroine works as a samsui (female Chinese immigrant who worked as labour) around the same period. The two give a different perspective to the same thing, thus complementing each other and giving a holistic picture to the reader.
The novel is multi-layered and complete on its own. The storytelling and style is compelling and enticing. Dialects and Singlish have occasionally been used to create the right flavours. However, Suchen tends to create characters that are often in discord with the hum of a traditional family life and rebel against the norms. On the other hand, Isa Kamari writes within the folds of a family life and the harmony or disharmony is more a spiritual journey. Together, these two giants help us comprehend the current day Singapore with its tall skyscrapers, financial institutions and a culture borne of the mingling of diversities.
The River’s Song is a startling work of brilliance that leaves the reader spellbound.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’(2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’(1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’(2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com