Good stab out of the uniform

Good stab out of the uniform

By Jolene Tan
Epigram Books/Paperback/224 pages/$18.90 before GST/Major bookstores/***½

A Certain Exposure is a quiet, powerful tale about the dangers of unthinking conformity - in other words, of hiding one's true self.

Jolene Tan, who is better known for her non-fiction op-eds on gender equality, writes a riveting murder mystery centred on a gay government scholar who commits suicide after being bullied.

A Certain Exposure is set between 1987 and 1998 and anchored in the lives of twin brothers Andrew and Brian as they go through the school system in Singapore.

The novel begins with Andrew's funeral and continues through the attempts of his relatives and friends to come to terms with the death and all they did not know of the lost boy.

The result is a rather disturbing portrait of how people move unthinkingly into an accepted and existing pattern of behaviour, whether or not this state of affairs is acceptable.

For example, Brian is ordered away by his parents from his first good friend because they are of different races and because Brian "had learned, in school, that a beneficent 'racial and religious harmony' prevailed in Singapore... this must be the face of it".

Similarly, a mutual friend is ostracised for daring to speak her mind and not being conventionally beautiful.

Another schoolmate protests against the sexually suggestive behaviour displayed during the school's orientation games but he is targeted by the more manly boys. Those who could offer help refuse to do so and set themselves up for attack as well.

The brothers' elite school in the book is named Ashford to remove any suggestion that a particular institution is under attack - Tan attended Raffles Girls' Secondary and Raffles Junior College and has said that many of the incidents in the book are based on real life.

It is also true that such incidents could take place anywhere.

Schoolyards and societies around the world embrace uniformity and attack the unusual.

It is rare, however, in Singapore that we are made to face recognisable portraits of our society and acknowledge the distortions.

A Certain Exposure is a good debut and holds the promise of greatness.

There are some marginally irritating matters to be addressed, such as the use of the word "lithesome" when the shorter, more common "lithe" would have sufficed, and the distancing exposition in one early paragraph, which explains Singapore's school system for international readers but alienates locals.

It is also frustrating that Brian is not allowed a greater catharsis than making his peace with another estranged family member, and that the dramatic weight of the final few scenes leading back to Andrew's suicide are carried by a character developed only in the preceding pages.

The fact that this character does, however, carry the weight successfully is tribute to Tan's skill.

I wish the author had not told me how slowly she tends to write, since I am ready to read her next book.

If you like this, read: The Inlet by Claire Tham (2013, Ethos Books, $24.61, major bookstores). When a mysterious woman drowns in a millionaire's swimming pool, the tragedy sets off a powder-keg in the lives of everyone involved, from the home owner to his property agent.

This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.

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