United by shared awkwardness, two high school girls in Singapore forge an intense if short-lived friendship that shapes the course of their lives in Teo’s buzzy debut.
At 16, Szu pales in comparison to her beautiful, dying mother, Amisa, who once starred in a trio of cult horror movies, playing a beautiful, cannibalistic monster in the only role of her career. Her husband, Szu’s father, is long gone; instead, Amisa works as a kind of medium with her so-called sister, another job that plays to her strengths. “She promises these people everything,” Szu observes, “and she is so wonderful to look at, so dazzling and persuasive, that a few of them have even agreed to bring over their life savings.” Szu is not what she wanted, motherhood not what she’d hoped for. But Szu has Circe, a recent transfer student and fellow misfit, and they quickly form an all-consuming sort of friendship, obsessive if not entirely pleasant. In the future—the novel weaves among three timelines: Amisa’s past, Szu’s adolescence, and Circe’s adulthood—Circe will be a “social media consultant,” assigned to a campaign to promote the kitschy remake of Amisa’s films. By then, she will not have spoken to Szu in years. Shortly after Amisa’s death, they’d fallen out. It’s a poetic sort of premise: Amisa, the horror would-be starlet, haunting Circe through the remake. (In a particularly novelistic flourish, Circe, when we meet her, is taking medication to kill off an “uninvited” tapeworm that’s taken up residence in her guts.) All three women have objectively compelling stories: Amisa, escaping her small village only to wind up with new thwarted dreams; Szu, navigating adolescence through a haze of grief; and Circe, now divorced, still unable to shake the grip of her former friendship. But the novel never quite amounts to more than the sum of its parts, the quieter intricacies of the relationships overwhelmed by the volume of the premise.
All the pieces are there, but the end result is frustratingly hollow.