Countries in focus: Singapore: Book review

Book review of The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Magic Circle

Title: The Magic Circle
Author: Charmaine Chan
Total number of pages: 302
ISBN 978-981-11-3996-3
Publisher: Ethos Books, 2017
Price: S$18.60

The Magic Circle is a memoir by Charmaine Chan written for her sister who died of cancer. This book was justifiably short-listed for ‘The Singapore Literature Prize, 2018’. According to Jennifer Chen, the editor of The Peak, it is ‘a breathtaking rumination’.

The book is an attempt to recreate the sister she knew for her niece, Yazmin, and to bring the youngster closer to her maternal heritage and culture. Elaine, the sister who dies of cancer, spent a major part of her life in New Zealand and eventually married a New Zealander; her daughter, born and bred in New Zealand, was merely six when the mother passed away. On the brink of death, Elaine made an impassioned plea to her globetrotting sister, Charmaine Chan, writer, journalist, editor, poet and former lawyer from Singapore. ‘Don’t let Yazmin forget her Asian side, make sure she knows all the Asian dishes I love,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t let her forget me…’

Charmain Chan kept her promise and spent a decade creating a perfect memoir for her niece. She writes, ‘For her (Yazmin), I have sealed them(memories of Elaine and her heritage)into black and white, preserved them in print.’

The book is poignant when it deals with sorrow and the impending death that looms over her sister. A skilful weaver of words, Charmaine Chan creates a tapestry of images and feelings that bring to  the fore a lively, vivacious woman cut off from her propensity to enjoy life by the throes of a lingering death, a loving family, grief, a childhood full of sunshine and youthful nostalgia about a sister who formed part of a ‘magic circle’. The three sisters born and brought up in Singapore eventually moved to different corners of the world and had what Chan called ‘a magic circle’, an invisible bond, which was sundered by the untimely death of the middle sister Elaine.

The grief is interspersed with memories of Singaporean food. The stories around flavours and eating – dishes like tahmeepok ( a dry preparation of noodles), popiah (a kind of spring roll), kerpoks (crackers), rojak (a salad in peanut sauce), roti prata (a Malaysian Indian paratha) – highlight Singaporeans’ love for a variety of food.

Chan is a powerful writer who understands how to manipulate language to its optimal efficiency. Though she has touched on the social structures in Singapore that coloured her childhood — the local schooling system, the family, the support systems like the local nanny and various vendors — a large part of the locale is in Auckland, New Zealand, where her ailing sister lived till the end of her life. Being an inveterate globe-trotter, Chan gives her readers glimpses of a number of other places, including London, Hong Kong, Bali and America as she ruminates over her sister’s life and her death.

A theme that strings all the memories together is Chan’s deep-seated faith. She has a chapter describing why educated Singaporeans often opt for Christianity over Buddhism or Taoism, which makes for an interesting read. This is a memoir of an affluent, educated Singaporean who views the world as borderless. The three sisters make three different continents their homes because that is where they feel they belong. Unlike the first Singapore Literary Prize winning book, a novel called Fistful of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim, which partly raises the curtain on Malayan history, on how Singaporeans rose from poverty to affluence and created a unique island of prosperity while addressing more complex issues on relationships, art and development, The Magic Circle is a memoir that dwells on the sunny side of Singapore, the more positive family structures found in Singapore, love as well as bereavement and grief. It is a book written by and about the generation that reaped the benefits of the struggle and policies that are often highlighted in Suchen’s stories.

The memoir is dappled with patches of sunshine and clouds of sorrow; the happiness of a stable childhood amidst loving family and friends and the dark cancerous clouds of grief that strike at the entrails of life drench the characters with a sense of unfathomable loss.

To create a memoir, one needs courage, passion, dedication, a good memory, research and ability with words. The writer weaves these qualities into her book. That it took Chan ten years to produce this memoir is a reflection of the effort she put into it. And I must say I enjoyed the book with its sunshine and the clouds of sadness when she dwelt on the sorrow of impending death. Her evocations bring to life a range of emotions in the reader. It must have been a cathartic book to write, as it is to read.

I would definitely recommend this book as an excellent read.




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


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