A Novel by Hsu Ming Teo
I've had this book on my 'to read' list for a very long time.
I have a little black Book, with artist's acid free paper inside. I carry this little book with me almost everywhere I go and when I stumble across a book, or when I see someone else on the bus or in a park reading something that looks interesting, I note the title & author down. Sometimes, I ask other people to write books down for me. I read in circles and tangents, following authors I like and recommendations from other people.
When I first met my partner, and we were having meetings at cafes to establish whether we were going to become friends, lovers or just not bother, he always had a book to hand. It was one of my little check-ups: I would occasionally turn up just a little bit late and guage his attitude to waiting. The man who kept looking at his watch and had nothing else with which to occupy himself was not for me. The man who, like my partner, had extracted a book and stuck his nose into it before my falsely tardy self appeared got a big 'tick'. I asked him to write a few recommended books into my Book for me to look up and read, eventually.
Hsu Ming Teo's Love & Vertigo was written into my Book, along with a number of other excellent Australian novels, by a poet former friend. The friend is former because she has moved away to another state and we have both been remiss in keeping in touch. She is, I am pretty certain, still a poet.
For some reason, I could never find Love & Vertigo – it was never at the library and I must have been looking in the wrong places in bookstores. I must admit, the title repelled me as well. I did not really have any idea what the novel was about, but I was not sure love and vertigo, together, were things that would capture my imagination.
I was wrong.
Love & Vertigo was an excellent read. Lyrical and humorous, it deals with the reminiscences of a young woman uncovering and telling her mother's life after her mother's suicide. Immigrants to Australia, her ethnic Chinese Malaysian-born father and Singaporean mother have an unhappy marriage and are dislocated in the Sydney suburb they find themselves in. The narrator and her brother absorb and reflect their parents' unhappiness. The novel reveals the disparate searches for Love an individual within a family undertakes and the multifaceted meanings of Love. And the Vertigo? Symbolically, it was the confusion felt by all the characters in the book with their expected cultural, gender and relational roles: obedient Chinese children, submissive wife, breadwinner husband, alienated immigrants.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – it was incredibly well written and insightful. I finished the novel late at night, my partner asleep beside me. I sobbed through the final chapter: so much of the guilt and self-recrimination were familiar to me.
Hsu Ming Teo captures and documents experiences that I am sure are common to persons ethnically different from the mainstream, or from a family with roots in East Asian and Confucian ideology. And she also uncovers universal aspects of family relations, misunderstandings of love and self, the struggle of the developing individual with the expectations of family and society.
I am sure, had I read this novel in my teenage years, it would have been highly formative for me. It's too late for such a novel to become integral to my person – not any fault of the novel, just that I am quite fully developed in cultural, relational and gender understandings of my own identity – but I was nevertheless moved by the writing.
I eagerly anticipate an interview with the author, to be published in the very first edition of Peril, an Asian Australian journal.