Once We Were There by Bernice Chauly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Once We Were There is dark and gritty, as fueled by drugs and sex as its setting in late 1990's - early 2000's Kuala Lumpur.
The story itself is a story of profound loss. It's the story of a woman first losing herself in her anger and her politics, then losing herself in family and motherhood, losing the child that has become an extension of her self, losing herself to drugs, and finally at the end of it all, trying to discover who she is, who she's meant to be after she's lost everything. And it does feel like Delonix Regia has no sense of self for most of the story--she is defined by the people and events around her. Whenever anything goes wrong, or she is at a loss, she turns back to alcohol and drugs.
Set against the backdrop of the 1998 Reformasi until Anwar's release in 2004, the events of the times weave in and out of the plot. Del and her journalist friends protest Anwar Ibrahim's arrest. They start an independent journalism site on the internet, the first of its kind. Del finds purpose in this. But as the romance takes over, and Omar, and subsequently Alba, becomes her world, this fades away, reappearing only in spurts: the lost appeal, subsequent protests, Mahathir's resignation, Pak Lah's win during the GE, Anwar's release. Little sound bites that are soon forgotten, stuffed in to tell you what year it is by now. By the middle of the novel, it doesn't really feel important anymore--it's just Kuala Lumpur. The journalistic beginning feels like an excuse for a social commentary on the times.
You could also say that undue emphasis is given to this recounting of history, evidenced by the fact that although the book description says "But when their two-year-old daughter Alba is kidnapped, Del must confront the terrible secret of a city where babies are sold and girls are trafficked", this event only happens 2/3rds of the way through the book. It feels terribly unbalanced, plot-wise, unless this is the way things work with literary fiction? (I read mainly in the fantasy/scifi genre, where inciting incidents usually take place in the first quarter.)
Overall, however, the novel works. It reads almost psychedelically, jumping between viewpoints and timelines, rushing in and out of events but also lingering in the here, the now, the never-ending painful present. I hesitate to say that it's brilliant. I disliked the first awfully long chapter (all the chapters are awfully long and could have been broken up at multiple points), wondering where Chauly was going with her part-novel, part-history lesson, part-social commentary. Yet, having finally pushed through, it feels like this disjointedness, this floating story, this bits-and-pieces cobbled together thing, finally makes sense in the light of the ending. Or I could just be extending literary grace and purpose to something that has no reason.
Personally, I don't see myself revisiting Once We Were There. It's not one of those stories that have gripped me in any specific way. However, I do not regret reading it either; it's one of those books that you feel you should read, at least once in your lifetime.
It's unapologetically Malaysian, though at times Chauly tends to overexplain as if pandering to the international crowd, and it's what the Malaysian English fiction scene needs more of.
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