Handpicked – Siew Siang Tay

January 13, 2010 § 11 Comments


Handpicked is a story about a Sarawakian girl, Laila, who travels to Australia to seek a new life. She desperately wants to leave her life in the Iban kampung and the longhouse in which her family lived in together with 30 other families, enough to give her the courage to pack her bags and fly off to be the wife of a man whom she has only known for a year, and only through letters.

When she arrives in Australia, she is at first awed by the man who is to be her husband, Jim. But not too long after, as they arrive to the caravan where she is to call home, she realises that all her dreams of red brick houses, beautiful lawns and white picket fences were only that – dreams. The Australia that she had imagined is not what she gets.

I really can’t say I liked this book very much. I got annoyed quite early on in fact, and I simply just couldn’t understand Laila. Her character is at best, always contradicting herself. I couldn’t get past her obsession with the perfect house and lawn and picket fence; how she simply couldn’t be satisfied living in a caravan, even though she loved Jim so much. All the characters felt a little shallow. There wasn’t much depth to them, and I hardly connected to any of them at all.

The story was pretty predictable. Laila meets another man, Sean, at a party and is immediately drawn to his good looks, good taste, and good wealth. Not too long after, she leaves Jim for Sean, only to find that Sean is abusive. But she sticks in that relationship for longer than she stayed with Jim (or at least, that’s how the timeline felt like for me), until one fine day, with advice from a very good friend, she ups and leaves Sean. The both of them (Laila and Jim) then start mending their own lives. Jim finds himself a new job, and starts saving money. Laila leaves the women’s shelter after a while, finds a job and rents her own place.

At this point, I was praying and praying that the ending would NOT lead them back together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m a sadist and hate happy endings. But the whole story was just so .. well, it felt very textbook-y, and I was just hoping that the ending would give me something different. The last two lines read like this:

“Blimey, look who’s here.”

His face breaks into a smile, his eyes light up. He opens his arms.

I have to say the premise of exploring mail order brides and how poor people get exploited is interesting. The book would have done much better (in my opinion) if it was explored in greater depth. But overall, I was just not impressed. Then again, to be fair, I might have started the book with some very high expectations. I tend to expect to feel some connection with characters, especially when books are written by Malaysian authors. But it just didn’t happen for me here.

Rating: 2


P.S. As a side note.. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this line:

Jim looks at her face, the darkness of her lashes, her almond-shaped eyes, the shimmer…

I remember reading an open letter on Ah Yuan’s blog HERE, about how annoying she found it to have Asian eyes constantly described as ‘almond-shaped’ by white authors. I usually don’t have any qualms with that description, but to use it twice in the same book is a bit much. And Tay is certainly not white.


§ 11 Responses to Handpicked – Siew Siang Tay

  • I hadn’t even heard of this book ‘yil I saw your review. and I’m not encouraged to read it at all! I hate predictable endings, and “textbook”-y books…

    Hope the next book in line is much better:)

  • mee says:

    I knew this book! I saw her featured somewhere here and I was intrigued because she’s Asian Australian (or Malaysian-Australian to be exact). I checked out her website and stopped there somehow. The cover looked interesting and all, but I wasn’t convinced by the excerpt. Fortunately I was right, because from your review it doesn’t sound like something I would like. I hate unbelievable happy endings. The last two lines sound horrible. Or the whole plot is.

    Talking about mail order bride, I have a book on my pile called A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, which sounds interesting. Apparently a lot of people think it’s good (I chose the book from read-a-thon prize lists when it just recently came out and had not heard any reviews that time– so I’m glad I may have made the right choice).

  • Aww, I’m sorry to hear that it wasn’t any good. lol I’ll try looking for it so I can read it myself, since this is written by a Malaysian writer and I always make special effort to try and finish those reads.

  • mee says:

    I just read the open letter link you gave us, and it’s funny hehee. I never noticed that description, but that’s probably because I haven’t read a lot of white-meet-Asian stories? I’ll pay attention next time 😉

  • OH! And about the al****-shaped eyes thing, I think the thing that bothers me the most about it is that it doesn’t really make sense to me? Like, eyes are shaped like nuts? whut? And almonds comes in many shapes and sizes so I just, a;lsdkfja. It’s just, so lazy sounding to me, a term blanketing all other possible descriptions to imply Asian-ness. And since it’s such, like, ridiculously common term used in a lot of books, people read the work of fiction, absorb it, and the expressions and phrases just keep getting regurgitated again and the cycle goes on. And non-white writers wouldn’t be immune to this cycle. (Orrrrr maybe I just think too much and make no sense.)


    lol I see it a lot, but maybe I just run into terrible, awful luck. Curses.

  • Ari says:

    Hmmm the topic of mail order brides has always interested me because as you stated above, I couldn’t imagine ever agreeing to do something like that, but poor people were exploited and if you felt you had no other options as a young girl and you saw being a mail order bride as the only way of at least getting closer to your dreams, than I guess it was a viable option. Disappointed to hear that it wasn’t great.

    I’ve decided I don’t really mind almond shaped eye comments. I don’t like when it’s repitive in a book, but it does help describe eyes and if the person is Asian with non almond shaped eyes than it probably isn’t commented on. They are very pretty though.

    So glad I found your blog 🙂 (Olugbemisola recommended it to me in an interview I did with her at my blog).

  • su says:

    @ anothercookie: I couldn’t even find it on Amazon when I was trying to add it to my list on LibraryThing. Maybe it’s only been published in Australia..

    @ mee: I was intrigued for the same reason, and since it was conveniently on the ‘New Books’ shelf, I just picked it up. I was expecting something good. But ah well..

    @ Ah Yuan: I like your Malaysian spirit! Teehee.. About the ‘almond-shaped’ eyes thingie, I know what you mean. But curses indeed, I don’t think I come across that description much either.

    @ Ari: The topic is really really interesting, but it just wasn’t explored much at all in this book. I’d love to read something else that touches on this subject a little more, maybe what Mee suggested. Glad you dropped by. =)

  • Mark David says:

    LOL! It’s true that “almond eyes” is the usual description for East Asian eyes (particularly Chinese, which can be quite different from Japanese and Korean). Even here in the Philippines (where people are brown and not white, hehe), we also use that term. I, too, have read an article disputing the term as incorrect for apparently it is Caucasians who have the more almond-shaped eyes. But I guess the reference simply points to the fact that the typical East Asian eye is pointed, especially the Chinese who can have really round eyes that are pointed at the edges.

  • JoV says:

    Nice to know someone who is into Malaysian authors. I’m one too. Except I have only read Tan Twang Eng’s “The Gift Of Rain” and probably Tash Aw some point in the future.

    Thanks for the review. I’ll skip this one.

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