THE SCENT OF THE GODS by Fiona Cheong

THE SCENT OF THE GODS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A richly layered debut--set in Singapore in the Sixties and Seventies--that's a memorable mix of ancestral voices, political intrigue, and rites of passage. Su Yen, an orphan raised by her Chinese-born grandmother after her parents are killed, attends the Convent of St. Catherine of Sienna, a mission school, learns history from her wisdom-figure grandmother and Realpolitik from cousin Li Shin--who decides against an apprenticeship in the family business, as well as against marriage to a girl from a good family, in order to become a soldier. The novel invokes not only childhood--where Su Yen plays inside a house of many rooms surrounded by trees and an extended family--but also the ambiance of Singapore: coconut trees, monsoons, and sand dust; friction between Malays and Chinese; and the Communist threat--all rendered vividly. As Su Yen describes family rituals, superstitions, and seasonal routines, along with memorable characters like the twin aunties who were born mute, the perspective of childhood shrouds events outside the family in an air of mystery. The girl, witnessing from the sidelines, nevertheless makes us see how the family both orders and oppresses the lives of its members. The grandmother discovers that Li Shin has joined the National Cadets, and Su Yen, before the book ends with her first period, tries to understand as an uncle disappears; as an aunt, apparently raped, is quarantined through her pregnancy and childbirth; and as Li Shin is attacked and killed on night patrol. It's the grandmother's aphoristic mind that finally provides the enduring perspective here: ``Love does not guarantee anything, except in the pictures. In real life you have destiny, and you have hard work.'' Cheong evokes not only the political friction but also a family history built from equal parts of mythology, tradition, and rebellion: a first novel that deserves a wide readership.*justify no*

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 1991
ISBN: 0-393-03024-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1991




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