“He would give them two fishing nets and they would be able to earn a living catching shrimps. He called them geragok.” – Narrator
Singapore, in its official forms, consists of people who are “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, or “Others”. Putting aside the fact that such categorisations end up unnecessary for many things, “Others” just does a whole lot of injustice to this particular group of Singaporeans who have been around for the longest time – the Eurasians.
Shrouded in the instability of Singapore, Malaya, and Indonesia in the 1950s, our story centers Bertha Rodrigues, going through a detailed recount of the birth, growth, and development of this Eurasian lady and her peers in Singapore and Malaya.
The novel starts with Robert Machado, a Singaporean Eurasian speaking to his elders, hoping to get some insights on his family tree (Bertha Rodrigues is his aunt). And the first thing which struck me about this novel was how real the dialogue could get. It was snappy, almost dispensing with phrase ownership, just like how you would expect bar/ coffee shop/ over the table talk to be.
And once you got into the focus of the story, the novel goes through a great tale of Bertha’s struggle between defending her country, keeping her family close, and the man she loves. Back stories and vibrant descriptions of Singapore and Malaya in the past a peppered here and there to give the reader the full picture of everything and everyone involved.
However, I would say to tread carefully, especially if you do not have the patience to go through thick classics. Rex Shelley tackled almost every crevice of the story, resulting in certain areas getting dragged for far too long. The action only seemed to start or pick up from Chapter 13 onwards, which was a good 163 pages into the book. At the same time, Bertha seemed to be a vessel of the story instead – it somehow felt like she was waiting for things to happen to her, instead of making things happen, which was how she was portrayed.
Also, the ending was not something I expected. It started with Robert and his present-day peers, who seemed to disappear and trail off three quarters into the book.
However, it was an intriguing look into conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the Indonesian Confrontation. While it seemed to be a story about the Eurasian culture with the confrontation as a side event, rather than a story told through the confrontation, what kept me interested was Shelley’s descriptions and character development.
People who you could imagine being a neighbour, friend, or a team mate to. Someone you could just meet at your next community meeting.
(Note: I’m probably going to stick to a more general, review-like tone for future Next-in-Reading posts. If you have any suggestions on what I can do to make these experience reports better, do let me know in the comments as well!)
The Shrimp People was written by Rex Shelley, to find out more about the book, click here. And I’ll see you next read!