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.
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.