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Everyone's Miserable In The 'Hot, Horrible' World Of 'Ponti'

Editor's note: This review includes some graphic language about sex and other adult themes.

"Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth," begins Ponti, the debut novel by Singapore-born writer Sharlene Teo. From there, everything just gets hotter and more horrible.

"I used to hope that puberty would morph me," the book's primary narrator, Szu, continues, "that one day I'd uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood."

Szu is friendless and dominated by her "expertly cruel" mother, Amisa, a B-list actress from a trilogy of horror films about the Ponti, or Pontianak, a beautiful cannibal from Malay mythology. Like the Ponti, Amisa is a being of entrancing malice, draining the life from those around her.

But things change when Szu meets Circe, an astringent nouveau riche girl at her school. "I heard you're like the girl from The Ring," Circe says when they first meet. "You never wash your hair and you're ----ing creepy. You climb out of TVs."

But then Circe smiles ("a Truly Winning Smile") and they become instant friends. "We were symbiotic in the intense, irreplicable way that comes as part and parcel of being teenage girls," Circe explains. "We wheedled and resented each other in fluctuating measures."

Teo expertly evokes the kind of primal adolescent shame and horror at a body out of your control, but that horror doesn't end with puberty. Rather, it morphs with age: later in life, one of the women's bodies is invaded by a tapeworm, pictured lurking and coiling in awful detail; another's by spreading, malignant cancer.

Nothing in this world is clean or pleasant, not even soup ("piss-colored and smelling of death") or sex ("the man flipped and pounded her like she was a burger patty").

Everything in Ponti seems to shimmer: the thick Singaporean air, the shiny complexions of teenagers, the mirages of family members past and present. It casts a miasma over the whole book, creating a claustrophobic horror that will put you off your lunch, and then your dinner, and then physical contact with other people. It's as if Teo sets out to make the world grotesque: "The past rises up like the heat pimples that itch along the scalloped neckline of my top." "I don't know how to fix the awkwardness that wafts over the table like a fart." "I coughed up a giant ball of phlegm the size of a baby chick." "The arcade smells of vomited popcorn butter and toilet bleach."

Plot is not this novel's strong point: the chapters rotate between Szu, Circe and Amisa as they circle each other with varying degrees of affection and loathing, but the bulk of the novel seems taken up with proving Szu's "hot and horrible" verdict.

After Amisa dies, Circe abandons Szu, annoyed that she "mooched about my house all day drinking gallons of Diet Coke and draping her sadness over my things." Their closeness had become repulsive: "I couldn't block her out. She was like sarin gas, leaked poison." But years later, grown up and working in marketing, Circe is assigned to a remake of Amisa's films, and finds herself haunted by images of both mother and daughter.

That's really it: the relationships in Ponti are so stunted and painful that the novel evokes love mostly through negative space. There are hints of reconciliation and redemption at the end, but they come too briefly and too late to have much conviction. The gift of Ponti is the moment you set it down, return to your own flawed-but-lovely life, and remember there are at least a few nice things left on this hot and horrible earth.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.