Book Review by Koi Kye Lee
Title: The Mad Man and Other Stories
Author: A. Jessie Michael
Publisher : Maya Press Sdn Bhd
The Mad Man and Other Stories is a collection of short stories written by A. Jessie Michael, a retired Associate Professor of English. No stranger to writing short stories since the 1980s, Michael has also received honourable mentions for the Asiaweek Short Story Competition. Her stories have appeared in The Gombak Review, The New Straits Times, Malaysian Short Stories, Her World, Snapshots,and 22 Asian Short Stories (2015).
The Mad Man and Other Stories contain 13 short stories she has written over the last 30 years, and it involves events she remembers during old and contemporary Malaysia. The book was launched in 2016 at the sixth installment of the Georgetown Literary Festival.
In the volume’s titular story, “The Mad Man”, four children observe Govindasamy paying obeisance to Hindu gods. One of the children, Joe, says that he is mad, while Pauline dismisses her cousin and claims that Govindasamy is just “a little crazy when it is full moon”. Inviting them into the outhouse after his prayers, Pauline notices the statues of Hindu deities and comments that Govindasamy is praying to the wrong God. Irritated, he responds:
“Your god, my god, it’s all the same.”
A simple, yet significant line in “The Mad Man”, underscores the important messages that are within the anthology. It is a tale about Govindasamy recounting his struggle with loneliness and how he yearns for human companionship. Even though he is called unkind names, Govindasamy bats them off – in hopes of finding a bond with the community, including the children. A man with a strange behaviour and uncontrollable temper, the tide turns for Govindasamy when one of the children goes missing. The scene contains several elements that showcase the religious and racial diversity in multi-ethnic Malaysia.
Another entrancing story in this anthology is “The Female”. Here, readers are confronted with patriarchy and how women are often blamed for being unable to produce a male heir — a common problem among Asian communities. May, the protagonist of the story, is socially pressurised to produce a son as she already has three daughters. She faces flak when she bears another daughter. To bring our the irony of the situation, Michael cleverly inserts this line “the Malay ladies warned that a husband without sons would tend to stray” to show how a woman’s worth is measured within her ability to bear a male heir.
Michael’s writing is delightful to read and it draws readers into the stories and the lives of the characters. She has managed to portray the humble lives of ordinary Malaysians caught in their own problems through her simple narratives. In “Christmas at the Shelter”, a woman going through a troubled marriage runs away with her young children only to be found again by her physically abusive husband, Xavier. In despair, she makes a dangerous decision on Christmas night. Meanwhile, Clothilde, an indignant and stubborn child, refuses to be reunited with her mother in the tale titled “The Orphan Goes Home”. Refusing to believe that her mother had to give her up due to circumstances, Clothilde learns how to communicate with her mother in colloquial Bahasa Malaysia.
The central theme of Michael’s stories in this collection revolves around faith and belief – regardless of the characters’ ethnicity, class and religion. Her writing style is simple, yet it communicates the plot effectively to readers. Though most of her stories are based in Malacca or small towns in an earlier Malaysia, international readers will be able to grasp the narratives clearly. Michael has discussed issues affecting ordinary folk in addition to to highlighting the common problems faced by women and those living in poverty. She has emphasised the importance of perseverance, respect, and being grateful through these stories — “Going Back”, “Kacang Puteh ( Roasted Beans)”, and “The Walking Women”.
Though she is a master at drawing readers into her stories and creating empathy for her characters, some of the stories in this collection were predictable such as “The Old Crone”. Michael has a simple writing style and she has managed to depict human relationships in her short stories. The socio-cultural issues faced by many Malaysians in The Mad Man and Other Stories were successfully discussed by Michael. These tales showcase her thorough understanding of struggles and prejudices that continues to affect Malaysian society. Her ability to make readers understand and confront issues that go unnoticed is a literary achievement.
Koi Kye Lee is a senior journalist with an appetite for current affairs and politics. She has worked in both Malaysia and Singapore. Her first fiction was published in Write Out Loud, a compilation of short stories by young Malaysian writers.
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