Set in contemporary Australia, Teo’s second novel (Love and Vertigo, not reviewed) is a beautifully crafted story of immigrant alienation, splintered families and the saving grace of friendship.
In the suburbs of Sydney, Tien Ho, Nigel “Gibbo” Gibson and Justin Cheong have been friends since childhood, brought together by a kind of misfit camaraderie and ethnic bonding (Gibbo uselessly insists he’s part Chinese), though culturally they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Justin’s parents are affluent Singaporeans, his father a doctor, his mother the cheerful master of their sanitary house (much is covered in plastic), and the two have high hopes for their son’s future. At a piano lesson, he befriends Gibbo, the flabby, teary-eyed son of a tough Aussie dad and English mum, both dumbfounded by their unimpressive offspring. The two boys are later joined by Tien at school, half Vietnamese, half African-American, the product of her mother Linh’s wartime romance. For most of her childhood,Tien is raised by aunts and uncles—they were able to escape with her to Australia while Lihn was mysteriously left behind. She regards prim Mrs. Gibson as the supreme maternal surrogate until Lihn arrives in Australia, and Tien is suddenly caught between two worlds. This uneasy space of compromise and disconnection is occupied by all three friends: Justin is gay and unable to reconcile his sexuality with the expectations of his family; Tien longs for a kind of assimilated Australian life that will erase the guilt she has for hating her traditional mother; and ironically, sad Gibbo longs for the kind of attention found in Asian families. The three move into adulthood, where they grapple with the loneliness of a deliberately forged identity, a territory that has little room for family or old friends. The book embodies the immigrant experience (even venturing into Lihn’s past, from her childhood in Vietnam to her eventual middle-aged escape to dull suburbia) and never loses its emotional intimacy.
In a world with increasingly flexible borders, Teo’s fine novel about traditions lost, found and reshaped resonates beyond the Australian experience.