Oct/Nov 2001 Book Reviews

Following the Wrong God Home

Catherine Lim
Allen & Unwin (April 2001) 328 pages
ISBN: 0 75284 121 1

reviewed by Ann Skea

I once read a universal précis of every grand opera's plot: Boy meets girl and they fall in love. Boy and girl are parted. Love struggles against irreconcilable forces. Everybody dies.

In many ways, this book conforms to this pattern. It is an old-fashioned love story set in an Asian society (Singapore) where conformity and order underpin modernity, wealth and stability. And it is a modern love story in that the lovers are modern, well-educated and independent. The "irreconcilable forces," however (those afflicting the young women, Yin Ling, at least), are the age-old dilemmas of family-ties and duties, dream versus reality, money, and the social expectations of the society in which she lives.

Yin Ling is young, sensitive, poetic, intelligent and beautiful - all a traditional romantic heroine should be. She is engaged to, and eventually marries, Vincent, the most eligible bachelor in Singapore. And, being a Singaporean woman, family ties, duty, and Asian traditions, customs and beliefs, as well as her association with a wealthy, successful, politically active (hence public) young man, mean that she is under great pressure to conform. Bill Gallagher, a visiting American lecturer, radical, outspoken and divorced, plays the romantic male lead. Yin Ling meets him through her poetry and they fall in love. Yin Ling struggles with her conscience; Ben is eventually forced to leave Singapore for flouting social conventions; and so, Ben and Yin Ling are parted. So far, so conventional.

The unconventional character in all this, however, is Ah Heng Cheh, an old family servant whose devotion to her ancient Chinese god shapes the story. Ah Heng Cheh is irascible, stubborn, selfish, cunning and smelly. Her ancient, deformed, nameless, homeless god needs to find his home, and she will not die until she has found it for him. Yin Ling cannot leave her; Vincent generously supports her and accepts her into his home, thus binding Yin Ling to him; Ben uses her as an excuse for meeting Yin Ling; and she, in her stubborn-ness eventually holds American big business and the Singaporean government to ransom over a piece of land she owns.

Who dies? Well it would spoil the story to tell you. So, if you like an old-fashioned love story, laced with Asian culture, you should read this book to find out.


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