All Windows Open: Family Fortunes Rise and Fall in the Tropics
by: ED WRIGHT
BALLI Kaur Jaswal's impressive debut Inheritance (Sleepers Publishing, 294pp, $24.99), a tale of Sikhs in Singapore, stems from the author winning the University of East Anglia's prestigious David TK Wong Fellowship for a writer to write in English about Asia.
The novel traces the fortunes of a family whose father, Harbeer, migrates to Singapore from the Punjab at the end of the British era. The family comes of age as the small nation-state develops into the economic powerhouse it is today, yet the trajectory of these fortunes is at odds.
Harbeer is a policeman, but his family is a source of constant embarrassment to his career and standing in the Sikh community.
Harbeer's wife, having provided two sons, dies while giving birth to a daughter. Harbeer is left to rear the three children, as well as a nephew, Karam. What follows is a beautifully woven tale of conservatism and aberration, and of the shame and misunderstanding that blossoms in the interstices.
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Harbeer is contemptuous of his oldest son, Gurdev, who has underachieved, even though he has fulfilled his filial duty of getting married, having children and holding down a job. He favours the big-talking hyper-ambitious Karam, who seems bound for success in Singapore's notoriously competitive education sector.
The other two, son Narain and daughter Amrit, are the source of many paternal nightmares. Having been kicked out of Singapore's national service for "unnatural acts", Narain is sent to the US to study and straighten himself out away from the notoriously gossipy Sikh community. His story, which involves dodging the Sikh expectation of marriage, is reminiscent of other coming-out tales set in South Asia's sexually conservative societies, Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai's Colombo-set novel Funny Boy for one. As for Amrit, she is completely wild, but the reasons for this are horribly misunderstood.
Inheritance spans the period during which Singapore went from an outpost of the British Empire renowned for its licentiousness to a well-ordered if socially constrictive island state. There's no doubt Singapore's leaders have been able to conjure something out of nearly nothing, but Inheritance, with its interest in deviance, questions the cost of this and indeed whether such well-controlled subjectivity is even possible. For instance Harbeer is an upstanding policeman who frets over his family's reputation in the Sikh community, but he is also burdened by hallucinations of his dead wife's presence in their house. It's unclear at times what is more repressive: the traditions and superstitions of the Sikh community, prone to moralising medical conditions as moral weakness, or the hyper-competitive Confucian-derived ethos of Singaporean society.
Jaswal's prose is pellucid and evocative. It drops the reader easily into the mind of her characters and their dilemmas and captures wonderfully the paradox of order in the tropics. Having lived in Singapore, Jaswal also offers a nuanced vision of Singaporean society and the workings of the Sikh diaspora within it. Inheritance builds its world simultaneously with anthropological awareness and intimacy. It's a novel you leave knowing more about the world and is highly recommended.
Ever watched the ABC television series New Tricks? In this age of market niches and demographic awareness, you can be reasonably sure it's at the vanguard of a deluge of counter-senescent cultural products featuring aged baby-boomers outwitting their generational underlings. In The Toe Tag Quintet (Vintage, 352pp, $27.95), Queensland author and journalist Matt Condon plays with this emerging turf, though the celebration of seniority in this book is wittily undermined by the protagonist's haplessness and instinct for finding trouble.
As the name suggests, Toe Tag Quintet consists of five novellas, published on an annual basis in the summer pages of Brisbane newspaper The Courier-Mail. The Gold Coast features both as a place to retire to and a hive of criminal activity.
A former NSW detective has taken a caravan at the Gold Coast's Main Beach while he hunts for a villa to buy and waits for his wife to offload the Sydney house. He plans on afternoon beers at the surf club and casting the odd line off his boat. Yet the habits of a lifetime prove hard to leave behind and before long he is solving crimes again.
Each of the novellas presents its own offbeat scenario. The first, Murder Most Abstract, centres on a hunt for missing paintings by reclusive artist Ian Fairweather, who spent years living in quasi-hermitude on Bribie Island. The second, The Murder Tree, is a conspiracy centred on the historical figure Captain Patrick Logan, the explorer and sadistic former commandant of the Moreton Bay penal colony.
Murder on the Vine concerns the killing of a restaurant reviewer against a backdrop of property development and vignerons. Murder She Tweeted is a romp in which relics of Mary MacKillop butt up against plans for a cross-city tunnel. The Good Murder Guide, which completes the collection, concerns itself with inter-generational networks of corrupt police and the bodies they have buried.
All five stories are witty confections, though there's a sense of things not being fully worked through, perhaps of being written on the hop in time for the summer paper. Notably in terms of crime writing, while there are plenty of bodies and biffings, there is little in the way of suspense.
However, this lightness of plot is more than adequately countered by the comic precision and verve of Condon's prose. Take this description of a villain from the old days who our protagonist runs into on the beach: "I knew it was him immediately, despite his tremendous increase in physical volume, the disappearance of anything resembling a neck, the great laval descent of flesh about his head and shoulders. He looked like someone had filled him up with air and slowly melted him."
It's high-quality writing channelled into an entertaining curmudgeonly protagonist set in a part of Australia that has long been ripe for the Carl Hiaasen treatment.
The idea of a chick-lit protagonist with anosmia (lack of a sense of smell) is the idea behind the titular novella of Hariklia Heristanidis's All Windows Open: And Other Stories (Clouds of Magellan, 151pp, $22), a debut collection of short fiction from the Melbourne author and blogger.
Arguably Heristanidis could have made more of her character's quirk, but what lifts the story above its otherwise conventional rom-com plot line is a deftness of touch in the prose and the likable voice of the odourless protagonist, Chrissie Triantafillou, the daughter of Greek migrants growing up in Melbourne in the 1980s.
Heristanidis creates an affectionate picture of Greek society in Melbourne, with the persistence of old superstitions and clashes of perspective between first-generation migrants and their children, but also between Australian Greeks and those who have remained in the old country.
Of the other stories in this collection, some are stronger than others. One of the better ones is Spouse Cycle, which deals with having married young in country towns and the itchiness for last-chance romances as middle age approaches. Other stories feature thwarted love, or people for whom love arrives late in life. The constructions are sometimes flimsy, but Herastanidis's vivid prose mostly pulls them through.