Review: Cher Tanon S.L. Lim

Abolish The Border

Let’s hold one another hospitably, explode notions of hereditary parentage, and multiple real, loving solidarities. Let’s build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than kin. Where pregnancy is concerned, let pregnancy be for everyone. Let us overthrow, in short, the ‘family’.

Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis

‘I refuse to accept this siege mentality, that inside of the family is light and outside is a tank of sharks. Fuck families.’ So reflects Yannie, the protagonist of novelist S.L. Lim’s second book, Revenge: A Murder In Three Parts, years after she has murdered her older brother Shan. ‘I prefer a different kind of nuclear in my family,’ she continues. ‘I will not have love which divides you from the world, measured not in what you can give but in what you are willing to give up.’

We exist because other people decided to birth us in the first place, and nothing is certain until the inevitable end. Same goes for novels. And in Revenge, the stage is set as soon as the book opens: Yannie is being beaten by Shan. From the very first line, it’s a chilling portrait of power at work (‘I’m the one who’s in charge around here.’). Her parents practice male favouritism, so Shan gets away with it, each act of abuse towards Yannie strengthening his megalomania. But it’s quickly revealed that Yannie’s parents also hit her, not to mention engage in emotional abuse tactics such as belittling and gaslighting. These dynamics illustrate that the family is not always a safe haven: violence repeats itself across generations, leaving a lingering trauma that becomes fiendishly difficult – if not impossible – to resolve.

To cope, Yannie keeps her head down and finds solace in books, seeking comfort in school and excelling in her studies. Shan goes away to university in Kuala Lumpur, which grants her a small respite. When her high school final results are announced and she is also guaranteed a place at the prestigious national university in the capital, it seems as if she will finally be free from the shackles of family life. But then her grandmother gets sick and dies, leaving her family with a bigger financial burden than before. Her dream is rescinded. Worse, she discovers that Shan has been accepted to post-grad studies at Oxford. Her parents trip over themselves to facilitate this glory by proxy, taking on more loans to help him get there. Yannie ends up living in her family home until their deaths.

In Revenge, the question of the border (both psychic and moral) presents itself again and again. Between Yannie’s search for self-determination and the customary piety she performs towards her family not to mention the fate of her being born poor in small-town Malaysia (‘It’s just the lottery of circumstances, a game she lost before she even was born’) lines are always being drawn. When she confronts her father about why the family will support Shan’s post-grad study when she doesn’t even get to attend university, he responds blithely: ‘…it’s such a wonderful opportunity for your brother. I know, the two of you are like cats and dogs, but remember, he is still your family. A good thing for him is a good thing for all of us.’ A beat, and he contradicts himself: ‘What have we ever denied you?’

Yannie’s desires and ambitions continue to rub up against the cruel facts of reality, which demarcate unforgiving boundaries in her life. Many of these chasms can never be bridged. Her childhood first love, Shuying, remains a spectre in her adulthood. Even though she manages to indulge in a fleeting adolescent romp with her, Shuying rejects Yannie in favour of a life with men – it’s implied that a code of compulsory heterosexuality and internalised homophobia is the reason why. Yannie is a dutiful carer for both her parents, but does not inherit their assets as Shan swoops in from overseas to grab them. She tries to make the best out of her circumstances as a working-class, single woman in the (unnamed) Malaysian town: she reads, starts a small business tutoring schoolkids in English, and eventually saves up enough money to visit Shan in Sydney. Her hunger for vengeance is what drives her to keep going. Shan’s old schoolmate Jun, who has harboured a romantic interest for her since they were teenagers, one which she does not reciprocate, hovers in the background.

But the border that is most difficult to breach is that of the blood family. No one, Yannie in particular, seems to be given a choice at all. The people around her preach the importance of family, no matter the circumstances, contributing to an ever-widening disconnect between what she believes and what is presented as an enduring moral truth. Her parents constantly tell her that family is ‘all we have’, displaying an understanding of love as a practiced posture learned through the mores of routine and tradition, conveyed as what Yannie joylessly describes ‘as a verb, not as an affect state’.

Later, when she moves into Shan’s family home, her sister-in-law Evelyn tells her that ‘family is most important – all parents want the best for their children.’ Jun evinces a similar opinion after hearing about her feelings towards Shan: ‘Either way, whatever has happened, you’re all still family. Blood is thicker than water, remember.’ And when a lonely Jun takes his own life (‘IT WAS YOUR FAULT’ is the only note he leaves, presumably for Yannie to find), Shuying’s husband muses, ‘Terrible for Jun. But worse than that, for his family, the real victims, the ones he left behind. For their sake, if for no other reason, he should have stopped what he was doing.’

If this is a coming-of-age story, it’s one that twists the conventions of genre. We are used to encountering girls in fiction whose youthfulness is their most prized possession. We watch them approach maturity via a series of transformative events and decisions, which finally sees them in adulthood living enriched lives. These are lives that are brimming with potential, each move pregnant with expectation. In Revenge however, Yannie’s youth barely registers. She is angry and contemptuous but consumes nothing – her existence is merely padding for those around her, and nothing she does bears fruit the way she intends. Revenge is also a thriller, and Lim doles out some acute portrayals, setting up wretched yet largely affectless scenes that lay the groundwork for the build-up of resentment and fury that leads to Shan’s murder. This is a coming of age that is achieved after Yannie’s parents die, and truly actualised when Shan no longer exists. When her grandmother is revealed to be dying, her mother remarks that it will be ‘long enough to bleed us dry, and longer’; the old are regarded as liabilities while young, able-bodied Yannie acts as an investment towards her mother’s selfish ends.

In this way, Lim paints a hard-nosed portrait of middle-aged, single and queer womanhood encircled by the long tail of patriarchy, bolstered by the senseless weaponisation of cultural traditions and the burden of expectation. For Yannie, the past propels her forward, her residual bitterness a trusty guide that orients her towards her future decisions: ‘All the cities she might have walked in: gone. The words she might have written, the insights she might have reached if only her mind hadn’t been nibbled up by the menial, petty business of survival.’ In this case, it means subconsciously making plans to achieve some semblance of ‘success’ (through educating herself and starting her tutoring business) and then inserting herself into Shan’s life in Sydney in order to avenge the suffering that he had inflicted on her. This how ‘coming-of-age’ works in Revenge: there cannot be growth until revenge has been wrought.

While the characters who orbit Yannie move about her in an obdurate manner, her anger and resentment form the core of the novel, even if they are sometimes expressed with a world-weariness. They are what drives Yannie towards the final act that sets her free, like an animal pre-emptively harvesting food for winter. At one point, Yannie contemplates:

Either you embark on a new category of experience – husbands, weddings, childbirth – or else the only milestones you have to look forward to are ones of loss.

When she manages to get her tutoring business up and running, she meets young children under her mentorship, children from well-to-do families who are allowed to improve their intellectual conditions. She notes the dissonance between their realities:

It probably never occurs to them that she and they belong to the same species. ‘What am I going to be when I grow up?’ they wonder out loud, as if it’s up to them, and she feels like screaming, Don’t be so sure you have a choice! They are like projectiles launched on the trajectory she once imagined for herself, and she wishes them godspeed.

As such, Revenge is not a conventional novel that tracks a protagonist’s journey towards what is understood as self-improvement. It registers dematuration, effectively turning the Bildungsroman on its head. This inversion shows itself when Yannie goes to Sydney and meets her niece Kat, Shan’s Asian-Australian daughter who has everything she can ever want and more (‘But she also hated her for having so much dumb luck, for being able to want things that others could not afford to want, a range of allowable desire that was nauseating in its dazzle and its scope’), and who possesses a ‘diversity of skills… seemingly without any great effort’. When Evelyn implores Yannie to stay longer in Australia for the express purpose of tutoring her daughter, Kat and Yannie strike up a tentative rapport that strengthens over time. This union, albeit antithetical in its contrast, is formed via their mutual distaste for Shan and Evelyn: Kat feels the bratty resentment one typically feels towards their parents in adolescence, while for Yannie, we know it is much more than that.

Reading Revenge stokes reflection on what motivates women to kill. Contemporary Medeas like Yannie carry a lifetime of grievances – sexual abuse, emotional abuse, discrimination, repression and unrelenting societal pressures – and yet the gavel of morality strikes them quicker. In this sense, Lim’s Yannie is most like Ayoola in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister The Serial Killer, or Yayoi in Natsuo Kirino’s Out: violence is the uncompromising outcome of abusive behaviour passed down through generations.

Misogyny is intertwined with colonialism – even essential to it. The mechanisms of capital only drive this deeper. In an interview, Lim said that one of the reasons they wrote Revenge was to show that ‘to be poor in a rich country is not the same as being poor in a poor country’. This is expressed early on in the novel, when Yannie’s maths teacher warns her to leave Malaysia if she can: ‘There isn’t any future here. I hate to say it about my own homeland but it’s the truth.’

These systemic circuits are sometimes not immediately obvious. We often see the symptoms and not the source; the colony is after all a powerful phantasmagoria that lingers on much longer than the act itself, an oasis that looks harmless on the surface due to its habitual lies of ‘progress’. Colonialism’s (and by extension, capitalism’s) legacy is unremitting: one of the reasons why ex-colonies like Malaysia are ‘homophobic’ is that it was the British who instituted laws against homosexuality in the first place. This is why Indigenous people in settler-colonial Australia are burdened with a false narrative that actively seeks to rob them further.

To that end, Yannie’s fate is pre-determined as soon as she’s born: a girl expected to provide physical and emotional labour for her family, while Shan is the intellectual force, his success paved and accentuated by his Oxbridge education. Her mother knows no life outside the family, which causes her to project her unfulfilled expectations onto her children (‘If I were your age, I would wear this!’); when Shan leaves the family home to go to university, her mother ‘smiles and waves, then goes home and lies facedown for several hours on her brother’s pillow, not speaking or crying.’ Jun looks up to Shan solely for the fact that he has moved to a western country and ‘made it’, viewing himself and Yannie as ‘simple people’ by contrast. What might be most damning is that Yannie does not even get the pleasure of fully requiting her yearning for Shuying: when they eventually do consummate their desire, it’s implied that Shuying is taking revenge for her husband’s suspected infidelity with his secretary (‘You don’t understand, Yannie. You have not lived so many years with the one man. When you live with one of them, you know – married women sense these things.’).

Just as in their debut novel Real Differences, which explores urban ennui and the grey areas that come with holding any kind of political conviction in a postmodern world, Lim holds nothing back in their depiction of the bewildering stranglehold that morality – as dictated by capitalism – has on the lives of people who have little (zero) free will to begin with. It’s worth noting that the characters in Real Differences live in Australia while most of Revenge’s story is set in Malaysia; the complexities of globalisation and the different ways class positions are constructed across the world are starkly illuminated through the two novels. Lim’s work shows that there remains an aspect of decision-making that, as they said to me during an interview, is ‘unaccounted for’, which eventuates in a rift of (mis)understanding between differing characters in society that perhaps can never be overcome. Or as Yannie reflects early in Revenge, while her mother patches her up after she beats her: ‘Things don’t have sense when an object can change shape like that. A car turns into an elephant, an elephant turns into a car.’

There is a reason for this senselessness. And we come back to the question of borders again, of how boundaries are often drawn before an individual has the chance to rescind, interrogate, or even notice them. In Yannie’s words, as she tries to explain ‘what it means to live with deprivation’ to Kat after a blow-out with Evelyn:

The thing you have to try and understand is, it isn’t dramatic. It’s not this big tragedy that hits you all at once, and then it’s all over – although that can be a tragedy, don’t get me wrong about that. There are lots of smaller aspects, every single day. They sort of crowd in on you, and don’t leave room for anything else.

This is it; that’s the bit. Even if there are missteps in Lim’s characterisation of Yannie, such as by portraying her as someone who speaks English in a British accent from going to ‘British schools back home’, or the way people say ‘mentally ill’ and ‘an end of an era’ in English instead of in Hokkien, they are mere trivialities in a novel of ideas. In the end, Shan gets to be rich while Yannie stays poor, and it is only through the act of vengeance that Yannie achieves true fulfillment. The blunt undertaking of Revenge is that the long tail bites back, the reality of the border builds to become an impenetrable fortress, and then it’s like the border was never enacted at all.

Published December 1, 2020
Part of Emerging Critics 2020: Essays by the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Keyvan Allahyari, Bryan Andy, Katie Dobbs, Cher Tan and Prithvi Varatharajan. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2020 essays →
Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore....

Essays by Cher Tan →