[Book Review] Void by Frank Passani

Void 

Frank Passani

Notion Press (2020) / 219 pp.

To purchase the book, click here.

Passani’s cerebral novel revolves around Melpomene Lau, a Spanish literature professor teaching at the Singapore University of Literary Studies in 2032.

Through a series of vignettes presented in various literary forms (diary entries, dialogues, flash-back, flash-forward, reversals, speculative imaginings of utopia and dystopia), we see Lau dealing with the void that she feels, triggered by a suicide of a friend and the general ennui induced by the demands of modern life.

As hinted by the Lau addressing her diary as Transcendental Ego, we get more of an intellectual rather than an emotional exploration of this void. Initially, it might be difficult for most readers to have a handle on this as it is full of academic terms and references. However, Passani does leave some clues as to what he is doing towards the latter half of the novel.

Those who have any training in philology or literary studies will have a field day as Passani is unafraid to reveal the breadth and depth of his academic background through his protagonist. This book could easily double up as a reading list for anyone who wants to delve deeper into literary studies or world literature.

Lau would eventually go on to write a novel, Void. These and other self-reflexive elements in the novel seem to express Passani’s views on academia, literature, and even aspects of Singaporean society. However, rather than exploiting his protagonist to be a mere mouthpiece of his views, care is taken to weave that into the story.

A couple of areas in which I wished Passani would delve a little more into are Lau’s identity and the setting of Singapore in the near future.

In the novel, it is established that Lau’s father hails from Hong Kong, while her mother hails from Madrid. Her parents decided to settle in Brighton, which lends her sort of a triple identity. Add to the fact that her name is due to her mother specialising in Ancient Greek philology, and we get an interesting melange. With Singapore priding itself on being a multicultural society, it would be fascinating to see how someone with such a complex identity exist within that society.

Placing the novel in Singapore 12 years ahead from the present day allows Passani some leeway to invent certain elements, such as the university Lau is teaching at. That said, apart from mentioning COVID-27, I would love to see how he imagines other areas of Singapore—as a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for a decade—based on current trajectories.

On the whole, this novel requires a patient reader as one has to scale the mountain of academic references. However, Passani makes the journey a little less arduous with an engaging narrative and a thinly veiled explanation later on. If anything, it has sparked an interest in me to explore world literature to find out what inspired him to structure the novel that he did.

[Book Review] Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Almost English

Charlotte Mendelson

Pan MacMillan (2013)/ 400 pp.

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. The story revolves around a mother, Laura, and her daughter, Marina. When the father abandons the family and disappears without a trace, Laura— with daughter in tow—has to stay with her rambunctious Hungarian in-laws due to financial constraints.

Marina is put into a traditional English boarding school, Combe Abbey but struggles to fit in due to her mixed heritage. Meanwhile, Laura tries to make a living but continuously makes a mess of her life such as having an affair with her boss.

As if things cannot get more complicated, Laura’s husband, Peter, reappears and she is at a loss. On top of the many years of hurt and resentment, she has to figure out the best way to tell the family.

As for Marina, she bumps into a fellow student, Guy Viney, at a bus-stop and eventually starts dating him. To her surprise, she finds out that his father is Alexander Viney, a celebrated TV historian. The elder Viney encourages her to change her major to history and as he gets closer to her, things take a dark turn.

I have no idea why this book is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. While it is not downright awful, it is hardly inspiring or exciting. Apart from the colourful descriptions of the Hungarian family and culture, most of the book consists of Laura’s constant self-loathing and Marina feeling like an outsider. The plot is predictable and occasionally melodramatic.

Worse still, there are quite a few clichés that go with the melodrama: Laura is nervous to meet her husband as she bites her lip till it starts bleeding, Marina is nervous to the point of having a stomach ache,  Laura hates her husband for abandoning them but capitulates to his bad boy charm. These clichés are in the same category as peeing in your pants to represent fear—it should be avoided at all costs unless it significantly adds to the story.

To top it off, there are too many complications in the book and Mendelson has left most of them undeveloped and cold. A narrower focus would make for a shorter and more enjoyable read.

Amidst all the mess, there is one moment where Mendelson’s gift as a writer peeks through. The family suspects that Marina has been in constant contact with Alexander Viney and asks Laura to investigate. She talks to Marina despite not knowing why the relatives are worried.

Marina pushes Laura away despite wanting her to stay. Laura tries her best to comfort her daughter despite having her own problems gnawing at her. The scene is short and the words are few but the way it conveys the mother-daughter bond and the unspeakable hurt is absolutely beautiful.

Unfortunately, one beautiful moment is hardly enough to save a messy book.