The 2019 Epigram Books Fiction Prize Winner suggests that the impractical, in Singapore, can be more rewarding
(Note: some spoilers ahead.)
Warning: reading Impractical Uses of Cake will make you hungry for cake.
Winner of the 2019 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, the debut novel by Yeoh Jo-Ann has a premise that hints at a cliche romance story: an anti-social literature teacher in his mid-thirties one day stumbles upon his ex-girlfriend from junior college living in a makeshift cardboard house, and they reconnect over cake.
However, Sukhin, the teacher, does not experience a re-meet cute with Jinn. It’s not all fluff and romance. The novel is much less a romance, especially in the conventional sense, than a psychological inquiry, a peeling back of Singapore’s shiny social facade to look at the lives of people who are feeling lost. Sukhin has a stable and enviable job of being Head of Department for English literature at his junior college, yet he does not find fulfillment in his job and is always grumpy. We’re talking aggressively grumpy attitude here – he has very little patience for both his fellow teachers and students, and does not hold back when criticising their apparent stupidity. He does love literature, but he cannot translate that love into teaching it in a school.
For our other main character, Jinn, contentment should come even more easily. Brought up in a wealthy family that had a helper to ensure she never needed to even boil her own water, Jinn is something who has everything. Or could have had everything, because she she ran away from home six years before her chance reunion with Sukhin. Through her, we get to know more about the homeless community in Singapore. The author doesn’t sensationalise or pity the homeless; instead, we see them as a diverse group of people who are able to support themselves and one another as a community. Many of them also have homes they can live in, but are voluntarily sleeping in the streets. Jinn is one of them, making a seemingly insensible decision – why would she choose to give up her comfortable and affluent life, and choose to be homeless?
That is the question that Sukhin is desperately curious to know, as are we, yet he never gets around to asking Jinn about it until rather late into the novel, and we only find out when he does. By keeping us wondering for so long, the author builds up an air of mystery around Jinn such that she edges closer to a manic pixie dream girl. Her strengths that make her a unique and memorable character – such as her independence that completely refuses to be “saved” by Sukhin, and an assertiveness that makes a great leader among the local community of homeless people – feel like eccentric quirks, because we get to know little about her that’s not filtered through Sukhin’s perspective. It does not help that the revelation of Jinn’s leaving home brings up the topic of mental illness rather abruptly and without carefully delving into its complexities.
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And in true manic pixie dream girl fashion, Jinn teaches Sukhin to open up and tone down on his misanthropic hostility. Especially when it comes to Jinn, Sukhin behaves like a totally different person, going to lengths to do things and socialise with others just for her. Their relationship does not evoke the intimacy that the author suggests it does, and it feels more like an unrequited love rather than them being former significant others. Their reunion does not create a miraculous change in Sukhin, though – he is ultimately still the irritable person who thinks he is superior to others. The author totally nails the “why am I always surrounded by incompetent idiots” modern man on the head, it’s impressive. She invites us to empathise with Sukhin too; it sure was a bit painful to see some of ourselves in him!
But relatability can only build our connection to a character that far. Sukhin is an unlikable character, but that is not a problem. Give us all the unlikable characters if they are real and complex! We don’t really learn why he finds his life unfulfilling, so it’s a struggle to connect with him fully. He is passionate about literature and he has the power to modify the syllabus so that he might find more joy and purpose in his job, but he doesn’t do it, and it’s frustrating that we don’t get an explanation why.
Like the tiered cardboard cake on its cover, Impractical Uses of Cake tells a multi-layered, diverse story of Singapore but it is a story that is striving to be more than what it delivers. It stirs in whimsical flavours with its serious subjects, which we sometimes enjoyed and other times, not so much. For its other cardboard-esque element, its sensitive investigation of the anxiety towards change in Singapore, the novel is worth a read.
Thank you to Epigram Books for providing us with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.