Ponti by Sharlene Teo review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti, which I received from the publishers and Netgalley. We follow three women at different points in their lives and how they relate to one another. In 2003 Szu is a teenager living with her mother and aunt in Singapore. A bit of a loner, Szu is often seen as an outsider until one day she befriends Circe and the two quickly become close. The narrative also follows Szu’s mother Amisa in the 1980s as she struggles to become a famous actress, with her only credit as the monster Pontianak in a low-budget horror and its sequels. Finally, in 2020 a recently-divorced Circe is forced to confront her past when she is part of the advertising team of the rebooted Ponti films.

The three different perspectives are incredibly well-written. Each sheds new light on the past and the other women involved in the story. As a reader you see these characters from different angles, making them feel very fleshed out. None are wholly good or bad, but rather have moments that attract sympathy or disgust. Teo also gives each of them a distinct narrative voice, making them feel like individuals rather than just a plot device. You are always very aware of whose perspective you are following and Teo never slips up going back and forth between the characters. However I found Szu to be quite unrelatable at first. Her first chapter I found a bit of a slog, especially compared to Amisa and Circe. When you get further into the plot you do begin to understand her, but at the beginning she is a hard character to connect to.

The novel shares its name with the film Amisa stars in, and there does appear to be horror elements within Ponti, particularly body horror. The most obvious example is when the reader first meets Circe in 2020, she goes into detail about her tape worm. Her strange fascination felt uncomfortable to read and Teo explores this notion of the body throughout the text. There are constant mentions of sweat and scabs, with Amisa at one point comparing her body to beef patty. The juxtaposition between this incredibly over-the-top horror movie and the average body was fascinating. No matter how horrific the events depicted in film are, reality feels much more gruesome.

Of course Teo explores the flip-side to this idea of body horror. Szu is constantly comparing herself to girls at school, whom she considers flawless, and Circe works in advertising where looks have a great importance. In a way this is itself a kind of body horror; a desperation to look a certain way, a fixation on beauty. It makes you question whether Szu’s dislike of her body comes from within herself or whether external pressures to be beautiful are affecting her perspective.

Teo’s writing here is very evocative and lyrical. It is hard to believe this is a debut novel, as some passages within Ponti are stunning. As a reader you are transported to Singapore and Teo describes it so vividly it feels like you’re there in the bustle of the city or the lush greenery of the countryside. The imagery is beautiful, imaginative and I wish I could underline so many passages in my copy. Not a word feels misplaced or haphazardly thrown in; a lot of care and patience has gone into each chapter and it shows.

Ponti is an incredible novel. Without going into spoilers Teo deals with very serious topics yet I found reading the novel a very uplifting experience. The characterisation of the three main leads was excellent and they were very well-developed. However the main strength of the novel lies in Teo’s writing style. It is haunting and imaginative, letting you explore a part of the world which doesn’t often appear in literature, particularly in the Western world. If you can get through Szu’s first chapter, then Ponti is certainly a worthwhile read.

Ponti is published in April by Picador and more information can be found here.

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