YX (sharikqah) wrote,

Read on the way home: 'Wolf at the Door' by J Damask (Joyce Chng)

"In Singapore, wolves wear human skins as a way of fitting in." - Jan (p.70), Wolf at the Door

Thanks to Eugene from the Budding Writers League and the timely A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I finally had the opportunity to read this e-book. Wolf at the Door (Lyrical Press) is an urban fantasy/ speculative fiction novel written by J. Damask (otherwise known as Joyce Chng). The most important detail about this book is its setting: it uses Singapore as its setting (several chapters are set in Malaysia), and as of September 2012, it appears to be the only published book of the urban fantasy/ speculative fiction genre to do so. It also has a pretty cover:

Wolf at the Door is the story of Jan Xu, a housewife and mother of two. She is part of the Lang (), a clan of Chinese (likely Hokkien) werewolves. She is the eldest daughter of the clan's forward-looking leader. Her life is devoted both to her pack, and to her two girls, with whom she raises with her non-wolf husband, Ming. By all accounts, she has left her colourful past as a rebellious troublemaker behind.

The central conflict in the book comes with the return of Marianne, Jan's younger sister, from her overseas studies in London. Not only does her arrival add a layer of uncertainty and tension within the family, but she's also brought back a British (read: ang moh) guy who's been schooling her some unconventional ideas about what it means to be a wolf spirit. The differences in what Jan and Marianne believe is right for their kind to survive in the modern world leads to an inevitable confrontation between the sisters. Jan has to put all her experience as a ex-vigilante to good use.

This novel is unique in many ways, among them its use of the family as a protagonist in a fantasy setting and the way it is so straightforward about daily life in Singapore. The places mentioned in the book do exist: there are Casuraina trees along Changi beach, a grass patch near Youth Park at Orchard Road and if vampires did exist in Singapore, I'd probably expect to find them at Clarke Quay too (that place is really, really shady). It also provides an intimate glimpse into Straits Chinese culture for non-Singaporeans without exoticising the details. While the descriptions are a bit skewed towards domestic life, I can find some solace when reading that Damask's werewolves also eat ang ku kueh

But this novel is also significant on another level: it accurately captures the intensity of modern-day, urban Singapore. Damask's fantasy world very comfortably blends two elements which are almost impossible to separate in Singaporea society: cultural heritage and race. It's as if these two are the foundations that Damask used to design her urban fantasy world along these lines. Singapore then becomes a fantastical setting for both ethnic and myriad (supernatural) culture. 

So there are elves who adhere to Taoist beliefs, slick expatriate vampires milling about in Shenton Way, and Filipina duende women who happen to be domestic workers. It is an ode to multi-cultural, transnational Singapore today, with all its workers, citizens and socio-cultural markers. 

That said, the novel isn't without its problems. There are way too many flashbacks, and even when they are clearly labelled ("the past" etc) they slip in and out of the present-day plot so often that it can be hard to follow the story. Personally, as a Singaporean myself, I sensed some convenient tropes that can be found on our very blinkered national TV: the problematic younger daughter, the foreign ang moh boyfriend that's manipulative, the strict Confucian parents whose hearts go soft when they learn their daughter is dating, the moody isolated artist type and, most unusual of all, a near-complete absence of the myriad equivalents from the Malay and Indian ethnic groups, which make up a sizeable portion of Singapore's population, and also have their own vibrant histories.

(I've rationalised these points by seeing the story from Jan's perspective, that is, from a Straits Chinese housewife's social and familial circle. Jan's social viewpoint then, is not expected to be 100% neutral.)

Nonetheless, Wolf at the Door is still a pioneering effort at bringing Singaporean urban fantasy into the mainstream. If you're a local like me, it will be comforting to know that our city-state has someone with talent and voice to write a compelling story that represents who we are today. And if you're not a Singaporean, you'll find this a book that combines a great story with an insider's view of a Singaporean (and Southeast Asian) way of life. 

Wolf at the Door (Goodreads, Amazon, Lyrical Press)
Joyce Chng's blog and DW

A More Diverse Universe
This review was written as part of A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour.
Tags: books, review, singapore, sociology
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