By Dr Carol Leon,associate professor in the Department of English, International Islamic University of Malaya.
This review first appeared in the June 2015 issue of ASIATIC, the IIUM Journal of English and Literature.
“ASIATIC, VOLUME 9, NUMBER 1, JUNE 2015 Asiatic, Vol. 9, No. 1, June 2015 207, Russ Soh, Not the Same Family. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2013. 188 pp. ISBN 978-981-07-7696-1.
Not the Same Family by Russ Soh is a collection of ten short stories. They are simple stories told in a simple way. In this collection there is none of the epiphanic moments one normally expects from this genre. Despite its limited word length, short stories, such as those by James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield, have the capacity to yield moments of deep insight and startling realisations. The stories in Not the Same Family are actually rather “long” and instead of snippets of human nature and life we are given relatively lengthy excursions into the labyrinths of family relations. And perhaps this is what is interesting about Soh’s stories. They keep trying to uncover the layer upon layer of complexity which constitute family life. I do believe that Soh is trying to show that family relations, seemingly mundane, are extraordinary in this very mundanity.
The families which people the stories in this collection come from diverse backgrounds and situations. There is the son who witnesses the utter sadness of his mother who, because of financial problems, is forced to give up her youngest son for adoption (“Visiting Brother”), the anxious daughter who is compelled to look for her father who deserted the family many years ago (“My Late Father”), the brother who is troubled by the deviant behaviour of his sibling (“Burying Brother”) and the son who has to care for a father who has tried to commit suicide (“Make Sure He Doesn’t Try Again”). Because Soh allows his stories to meander, we are given ample opportunity to appreciate, understand and even feel sympathy for some of these characters. Though the epiphanic moments may be missing here, the stories however do dwell upon the vagaries of human nature specifically in relation to the family.
An air of familiarity envelops these stories for the Malaysian and Singaporean readers particularly. What endears these stories to us are the voices Soh adopts in these tales: they are easily recognisable to readers in Malaysia and Singapore. Soh does not use Singlish (or Manglish for that matter) extensively but manages to capture the nuances and particular patterns of thought of people from this region. Their voices draw us into the situations they find themselves in and it is this identification which also peaks our interest in these characters. The stories are also peppered with familiar Singaporean locations: Geylang, Balmoral Road, Bukit Timah, Kolam Ayer, etc. And of course there is frequent mention of the HDB flats, a ubiquitous feature in Singapore. But some of the stories are located in distant lands, the Greek islands, Australia and America.
Soh uses different familial permutations here: relations between wife-husband, daughter-father, son-father, daughter-parents, siblings and more. The families here are caught in ordinary contexts. They are on holiday, planning a wedding, preparing to study abroad, facing illness, aging, etc. What the writer tries to evoke is the varied, confused feelings that arise out of these situations when family members interact. In “Her Wedding Dinner Gown,” it is interesting (but also perhaps typical) the way a simple comment by the father provokes such a response in the daughter, but as the mother surmises at the end: “The day they decide to stop fighting like this would be the day that something has died inside either one or both of them…. The love for each other will always be there. But the mutual admiration would have ebbed, or disappeared. And neither one really wanted just the one without the other” (90). Most readers could empathise with the feelings of the narrator who is trying to help his father in “Make Sure He Doesn’t Try Again.” The father is old, ill and feels a failure and yet cannot communicate his sense of helplessness to his family except in a most extreme way. “In the tradition of Chinese father-son relationships, we never did talk much. Through bits and pieces snatched from rare conversations we had had and the overheard exchanges between him and Mum and the occasional relatives who came to visit, I managed to stitch together a pastiche of his life” (38). In “This Little Piggy,” the father of the family is trying to advise his son about man-woman relationships and as he does do, evaluates his own relationship with his wife. Sometimes friends become like family members, when they allow the person to be his truest self, as in “Stick More Close Than.”
The author tries different techniques in some stories. “It Takes Two” is wholly structured as a dialogue and “My Big Fat Greek Epiphany” loosely takes on the form of a Greek drama, complete with a chorus. But on the whole, the stories are straightforward, set in ordinary, everyday contexts and what underlies these stories is the lure and pull of the ties that connect and bind the unit, the community, the phenomenon we call family.”
Carol Leon, University of Malaya, Malaysia
By Ismail Kassim, a retired Straits Times journalist. This review first appeared in his Facebook page on March 16 2015.
Tales from the ECP – A collection of Short Stories by Russ Soh
Russ is a Katong boy and so am I. He loves spending time at the East Coast Park and so do I.
So when Ethos Book launched his second collection of short stories last Friday, I made it a point to attend and get a copy.
For $14 you will get a slim 128-page book, with a cool cover design, and 10 stories that you can bring along anywhere, and perhaps to the ECP on a lazy afternoon.
It is a rojak (my life-long favourite dish) collection of stories that many Singaporeans can relate to – the intrigues behind en-bloc sales, the woes of National Service, the stress of registering a school for your child and getting locked up in your own bathroom.
Though there is no ghost tale, a few verge close to the bizarre, like the one titled: Light of the Park. For a few other tales, readers need to have the patience to read to the very end to get the point of the story.
I am sure he has many more ECP stories under his belt, waiting to be told. Alas, for me, despite my almost daily early morning sojourn to the beach, I have managed to pen only one miserable short anecdote about a grasshopper, a crow and me.
The Today paper published it. As it was an unsolicited contribution, the paper felt that no payment was necessary.
A former corporate top honcho, Russ took early retirement a decade ago to relax, read, travel, and to write, yes, he has got the writing bug and when you have it, it is not easy to shake it off.
He writes easily and though his prose doesn’t exactly sparkle, there are memorable phrases scattered all over in compensation..
Like, for instance, his description of his Laguna Park flat as ‘’real value-for-money water-front living’’ and likening withered leaves as ‘’fallen comrades prancing around on the ground.’’
Autumn in the Park is the tale that I like best. To quote Russ, it is the story of a ‘’late-summer mid-autumn romance’’
It is the love story between a great elderly Singaporean leader who had by then retired from public office and a gem of a woman, years his junior. It is a story of the meeting of two great minds and of undying love, devotion and sacrifice, especially on the part of the lady.
Russ described him as one of the most powerful who had contributed immensely to the building of the nation. But he didn’t gained much financially because at that time ministers did not get sky-high wages.
As for the woman, ‘’she wasn’t unattractive, but just a tad too brainy and too outspoken and probably too intimidating for most Singapore males.’’
Russ’ prose turns lyrical when he described his encounter at the ECP car park with the former leader, who was then almost coma-like after a stroke.
’He didn’t utter a word, nor extend a hand for me to shake, nor make any movement, other than with his eyes. Those eyes locked with mine for a while, and seemed to blaze at them, until I looked away.
‘’When I turned my eyes back to him again, he continued to glare at me. After what felt like an eternity, he twitched his lips in the faintest hint of a smile, and closed both eyes, as though. having no interest in me.’’
So powerful once, yet so powerless now; a poignant reminder to all of us of the fragility of life on this small planet
I think I know the main characters in this story. I know his only son from his first marriage, my classmate at both primary and secondary level, and for a few short years, my colleague in the Straits Times.
I remember paying my condolences to my classmate in the dying days of the wake and had the honour of meeting this unassuming lady and exchanging a few words with her at her semi-detached house in the Katong vicinity.
For this story of love, loyalty and devotion alone, I will recommend the book as a good BUY.