Debut Novels Transport Readers From Paris to Singapore
ALL THE GOOD THINGS
By Clare Fisher
Three weeks into her jail term, 21-year-old Bethany sets out to write down all the good things about her life — things that might help her survive the “100% TM certified bad thing” she did that landed her behind bars in a Sussex women’s prison. Bethany’s subsequent list gives Fisher’s book its structure and chapter headings, among them “Smelling a baby’s head right into your heart,” “Flirting on Orange Wednesday” and “Running as fast as the Thames flows.” From their telling, the story of Bethany’s troubled life emerges: a mysteriously absent mother, foster care, problems at school, dead-end jobs, debt, culminating in single-motherhood after an affair with a married man.
Looming over it all is the mystery of just what this “100% TM certified bad thing” could possibly be. This is the lure intended to lead the reader on, but it feels manipulative, particularly after the fact, when the author’s false leads are exposed. Bethany can be winning and clever, but she’s ultimately an unconvincing character, one minute well read and “a bright girl,” with “real talent,” the next childlike and naïve, speaking in Hallmark slogans. “Hugs shut out your fears for longer than they last,” she writes as part of Good Thing No. 16, and “Drinking tea and eating Cadbury’s mini-rolls even when you’re not thirsty or hungry will fill you from head to toe.”
“All the Good Things” wants to be a redemption story, but it’s laced with too much saccharin to succeed.
HOW WE DISAPPEARED
By Jing-Jing Lee
The name given to the protagonist of this traumatic story sets the tone for what’s to come: “Wang Di — to hope for a brother.” Wang Di’s is a Chinese immigrant family in Singapore in the years before World War II, her birth a disappointment, her life circumscribed by poverty and sexist tradition. In the best of times, a matchmaker might find her a decent husband with whom she can raise a family of sons, but these are the worst of times, and, before any match can be made, the Japanese Imperial Army takes Singapore and 17-year-old Wang Di is kidnapped to work as a “comfort woman,” the chilling euphemism for a sexual slave.
It’s a challenging story to tell, and, as if to mitigate the horrors, Lee weaves two contemporary narratives through it, each harboring its own mystery waiting to be solved. At first, the quickly shifting timelines and characters are distracting: There’s Wang Di, then and now, and Kevin, a 12-year-old boy in modern-day Singapore trying to make sense of a deathbed confession by his grandmother. His quotidian tribulations seem trivial in the face of Wang Di’s torment, which Lee describes with necessary delicacy. “Things were done to me,” Wang Di recalls, “that I would never speak about, could only deal with by believing that it was happening to someone else — ‘Fujiko,’ my changeling.”
As anticipated, the three narratives converge at the end, with some secrets revealed and some kept hidden, laying bare the long reach of the damage caused by war.