Those readers who have followed this blog for a while (yes, both of you) may remember that some time ago I made a resolve to correct the gender imbalance on my bookshelves and in my occasional book reviews. At the moment I have a pile of books to be read, a beta read to finish and sundry other tasks that I really should have been doing instead of reading Bitter Leaves by Tabatha Stirling. However, once I picked it up – as the old received phrase (cliché to you and me) has it – I couldn’t put it down.
Bitter Leaves is a novel set in modern-day Singapore. The interwoven narratives reminded me of a less-complex Joy Luck Club, no bad thing. Ms. Stirling creates four distinct and utterly believable narrators in an environment that I can vouch for as authentic, having visited my parents for the long school holidays during their three years in Singapore. Yes, we had a maid. Amahs they were called among the military. Being only 14, I cannot say that we were Chou’s dream of an ideal Ang Moh, but she did get weekends off and her room and en-suite shower were better than I had when I joined the RAF myself some years later. As for the pay, I don’t know how many Singapore dollars it was, but it probably wasn’t enough. She cried when my parents left, too.
Bitter Leaves gives a true insight into the melting pot that the Lion City has always been. Shammi is from Indonesia, Jocelyn is Chinese, and Lucilla is Filipina, and those are just the maids who figure in the story. The horror of “Maid Culture” is unflinchingly portrayed, Madame Eunice, one of the employer narrators, is a truly frightening creature/creation. However, some of the skill shown in this book is not least visible in the arousal of understanding – if not sympathy for even this character.
Tabatha’s descriptions of the conditions endemic in Maid Culture are harrowing. It is no exaggeration that some of what goes on is no more than human trafficking and slavery. Other themes addressed are mental illness and what it means to be a woman today, where so much inequality persists the world over.
“Expat” life is well drawn and concurs with my own experiences whenever I have lived overseas. I particularly liked the portrayals of two minor characters from the Foreign Office, which the author also nailed firmly down on the page.
There are moments of joy and hope throughout the book and some beautiful descriptions of South East Asian childhoods.
I loved this book, and it took me barely two days to read. It is also a call to all of us to remember that slavery is not confined to the pages of historical novels, but is a fact of life, as I write this, from Singapore houses to Streatham nail bars.
Bitter Leaves, published by Unbound, will be available from all good bookstores and on-line retailers from March 2019.