A slightly different version of this review was published in The Star on 19th November, 2016
NOW THAT IT’S OVER
Author: O Thiam Chin
Publisher: Epigram Books
TWO Singaporean couples spend Christmas on the island of Phuket in 2004 in O Thiam Chin’s award winning novel Now That It’s Over.
The time and the place is, of course significant: On Boxing Day of that year, a massive earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean, triggering a series of tsunamis that killed over 200 thousand people and caused extensive infra structural damage in some 14 countries.
The two couples in question are of course affected by the natural disaster, and this is not a spoiler as I doubt even the most ignorant of readers could be oblivious to the tragedy that shook the world 12 years ago. Indeed, the use of what has been called the world’s deadliest tsunami in recorded history as a story setting was what piqued my interest in this novel initially, even before it was named winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2015.
I imagined that Now That It’s Over would be a heart-wrenching study in human loss and suffering; an examination of the fragility of the flesh versus the astounding strength of the spirit. I anticipated life-and-death decisions that forced O’s characters to face truths they had hitherto managed to deny and side-step thanks to their busy and orderly Singaporean lives. I hoped for a story about revelation, transformation and redemption.
I expected too much.
When I finished the novel, the first thing that hit me was that I felt nothing. I had read about death, and destruction; there had been betrayal and deception, regret and guilt, but I was unmoved. I thought about my response, or lack of it, and decided that the root of my indifference lay in my feelings about the characters: I didn’t care about them, and I didn’t just dislike them. My negative perceptions of them veered to side of indifference.
Ai Ling and Wei Xiang, Cody and Chee Seng are an annoying bunch, but none of them inspire particularly venomous hatred. Their faults aren’t unique or interesting. They’re just four boring, inarticulate, navel-gazing Singaporean adults whose garden-variety, middle-class problems made it very difficult for me to take them seriously.
The two couples aren’t bothered by much more than existential angst, and they respond with either mind-numbing petulance or mind-numbing fear-and-loathing, both of which result in even more mind-numbing interior monologues that reveal nothing except that they are all deadly dull. Sadly, even death, doesn’t make any of them more interesting. Neither does sex.
And there is a lot of sex. A lot. Unfortunately, most of it is gratuitous and boring. The descriptions of the gay sex is detailed and explicit, and rather tedious. The descriptions of the straight sex is sketchy, vague and rather tedious. I found some specifics jarring. For example, “When Wei Xiang entered her, Ai Ling gasped”. Come on, why make a song-and-dance out of a woman gasping during sex? The passage that the sentence comes from is, in my opinion, a strong contender for the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.
Another thing I was bothered by was the author’s lack of attention to facts and also inconsistencies in the storyline. A character is described as being stitched up when there is no way the medical procedure they underwent would have required going under the knife; Chee Seng is said to dislike wearing Cody’s ring and does so only in his presence, yet Ai Ling sees him sporting it when she and Chee Seng are dining a deux. Furthermore, her reaction when she sees the ring is inexplicable and far-fetched. Then there are Cody’s sisters, who are said to dote on him, but in the next sentence, also described as not paying “much attention to him”.
The only part of the novel that rang true to me and which held my interest were the account of young Cody’s growing awareness of his homosexuality. This was the only time I felt sympathy for any character in this novel; the only time I felt the author get under a character’s skin and describe a living person whom I could believe in and empathise with.
Otherwise, I felt absolutely no connection with any of the four. Even being privy to their most intimate moments did not allow me to know them. The sex scene are just carefully choreographed performances and don’t reveal anything meaningful about the characters. Their interactions with each other merely skim the surface of human relations. They live small lives and are masters of small talk. Doubts and disappointments are buried deep, denied and hidden. They don’t talk to one another and they don’t even talk to themselves. Thus, the reader is kept distant, and in the dark.
Why bother placing these characters in Phuket at the time of the 2004 tsunami? It seems like nothing more than a promising idea that got submerged in the author’s inexplicable preoccupation with four inconsequential lives. After I turned the final page, I felt like I was still waiting for their stories to begin.