|Jan/Feb 2001 Book Reviews|
Picador, Pan Macmillan (July 2000) 212 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36200 3
My first impression of this book was that it was pretentious. It begins with a cryptic epigram from an unknown book identified as "The FiancÚ's Twin-Lens Camera Companion 1948," and the opening preface is equally obscure. Not until I was well into the book did I understand either of them. It was not a good way to start.
Chapter 1, however, began to tell a story. Not an altogether novel story, but one which is told from an unusual perspective and with genuine empathy for the attractions, strangeness, misunderstandings and pitfalls which can accompany cross-cultural love affairs.
Simone Lazaroo has chosen a time and places which throw such differences into sharp relief. The time: about 1945. The places: Singapore and Broome (Western Australia). It was a time when Singapore was still in turmoil after the Japanese occupation, and Broome was still a small, isolated, culturally unsophisticated pearling town. This historical displacement evokes an atmosphere which is, itself, strange and curiously naive, like the Eurasian Singaporean woman who tells the story. It is an atmosphere which is far removed from that of today's sophisticated, confident, culturally mixed, worldly-wise society.
The narrative jumps between the young woman's first person account of events, and a third person narrative in which the perspective is also essentially hers. It is a technique which supposedly allows for some objectivity but which is, in fact, rather distracting.
The story, simply, is of a love affair between a young woman who has suffered the hardships of war, and an Australian man whose family have become moderately wealthy in the pearling trade. They meet in Singapore, become engaged, and the young woman returns with her fiancÚ to Broome in anticipation of their marriage. In a place where the local Customs Officer assiduously and selectively enforces the government's White Australia policy and racism is deeply ingrained, their love struggles and, predictably, dies.
The interest, for me, was in the writing, which is often elegiac and sensuous, with a certain dream-like melancholy which captures the young woman's experiences. I was also interested by the young woman's perceptions of that early Australian society flavoured, as they are in her narrative, by her own experiences of poverty, hunger and wartime horror and by her cultural belief in a spirit world which is not unlike that of the aboriginal servants her fiance's family employ. Dining-room chairs are "for keeping one straight-backed"; afternoon tea presents an array of food which is "disguised; in a bedroom, three clothes-filled wardrobes stand against the walls "like bank safes":
When I open one, a shimmering blockade of outfits exhale dust at me. It is like looking at an enormous box of sugar-dusted confectionery. Some are soft, some are hard, some are thick, some are transparent....I take a deep breath, put my finger in to taste their sumptuousness. They are sweet, they are soft. They are wonderful disguises.
In the end, however, this book seemed to me to be flawed by its one-sided perspective. The Australian fiancÚ inevitably remains a shallow caricature, and his world a stereotyped, narrow-minded, racist world. And, whilst the chapter- heading extracts from the fiancÚ's Twin-Lens Camera Companion 1948 eventually become understandable as a metaphorical conceit for culturally different ways of seeing things, this understanding only dawns gradually and, for me, came far too late in the book for it to be effective.
All-in-all, this novel seemed to me to be like the young woman's own adventure: an ambitious dream which sadly did not succeed.