In her debut novel, Teo artfully collects various stories and rolls them into one seamless narrative. It is at once a subtle critique of the pressures of living in a modern Asian metropolis; a record of the swiftness and ruthlessness with which south-east Asia has changed over the last three decades; a portrait of the old juxtaposed with the new (and an accompanying dialogue between nostalgia and cynicism); an exploration of the relationship between women against the backdrop of social change; and, occasionally a love story – all wrapped up in the guise of a teenage coming-of-age novel.
Switching between the perspectives of her three central protagonists Teo entwines three independently engaging narratives about troubled women into a grand, unified account of how hurt and damage is carried through the years and within relationships. With its thoughtful plot and vibrant prose, Ponti is one of the more assured debuts I’ve read recently ... Too many first novels coast along on a fad-like buzz rather than the promise of a genuine upward trajectory, but everything about Ponti suggests it’s the rare, real deal and Teo’s a writer we’ll be reading for many years to come.
The Singapore in Sharlene Teo’s Ponti is vivid and immediate, its people complex, beautifully sketched and captivating ... Teo’s Singapore is exquisite, lush and menacing. The suffocating streets of the country’s red light district are packed with leering men; children grow up hearing fables of oily male ghosts that sneak into girls’ beds. This is a place that will be familiar to many Singaporeans: colourful and bewitching, a city of the earthy and the sublime.
Teo expertly evokes the kind of primal adolescent shame and horror at a body out of your control ... Everything in Ponti seems to shimmer: the thick Singaporean air, the shiny complexions of teenagers, the mirages of family members past and present. It casts a miasma over the whole book, creating a claustrophobic horror that will put you off your lunch, and then your dinner, and then physical contact with other people. It's as if Teo sets out to make the world grotesque ... Plot is not this novel's strong point ... That's really it: the relationships in Ponti are so stunted and painful that the novel evokes love mostly through negative space.
Ponti is told from the perspectives of each of the three women, Szu, Circe, and Amisa ... Szu is compelling and believable, she is filled with authentic teenage confusion, distress and sense of specialness ... Teo’s writing is wonderful; Ponti, filled with spot-on vivid descriptions, metaphors, and observations, is a novel to enjoy line-by-line ... Teo is particularly brilliant on evoking place ... The other setting Teo conjures brilliantly is Singapore itself. She captures the city’s restlessness and modernity, alongside its adherence to tradition, and its questionable celebration of its past ... Teo’s portrait of Singapore is so good it would not be a surprise if Ponti were a contender for the next Ondaatje Prize, awarded to a work that best evokes 'spirit of a place.'
There comes a painful moment in every writer’s life when they must concede that the thrillingly descriptive phrase they’ve been fashioning for hours or days (or even, sometimes, in my case months) must go if it interrupts the story. If you let mere words muscle in between the tale and the telling—or, worse, allow them to push your reader away (or, as in this case, give her a severe case of brain-ache)—then daylight rushes in on the magic. Your fiction doesn’t live. It wasn’t until the novel’s final pages when, reading Circe’s eerily arresting description of an episode from childhood, that I found myself putting down my pencil and, for quite a few pages actually, holding my breath. If a more vivid, elastic and relaxed Sharlene Teo is hiding somewhere beneath all this knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak, then I wish her lots of luck—and a much tougher editor—for her next novel.
...the pleasure for readers is in piecing together their echoing, diverging stories. On their own, Teo’s sharp characterizations and setting—so alive that the book seems to create its own, humid microclimate—would set this book apart. Add to that her imaginative plot, prose that turns from humor to devastation on a dime, and original storytelling, and Ponti is a beyond-promising debut.
Tao’s descriptions of life on the equator come alive; you may feel sweat slicking your back or the sting of a mosquito bite ... With razor-sharp wit and painstaking attention to detail, Tao jumps through time ... Tao paints a painfully true depiction of how it feels to be an angsty teen ... Ponti is full of brilliant prose about the heartbreaking truth of growing up.
All three women have objectively compelling stories: Amisa, escaping her small village only to wind up with new thwarted dreams; Szu, navigating adolescence through a haze of grief; and Circe, now divorced, still unable to shake the grip of her former friendship. But the novel never quite amounts to more than the sum of its parts, the quieter intricacies of the relationships overwhelmed by the volume of the premise. All the pieces are there, but the end result is frustratingly hollow.
Sharlene Teo's trenchant, feverishly unique debut novel soars as it struggles through the complexities of monstrosity, womanhood and loneliness ... Ponti is centered on Szu, an uncomfortable, insecure teenage girl; her tenuous, wealthy best friend, Circe; and Szu's mother, Amisa, the former star of a once-cult classic film, Ponti. The book leans back in time to explore how Amisa came to be Ponti, and looks into the future, where Circe has never really been able to free herself from Szu and Amisa's influence ... Onti explores a different perspective of motherhood, family and friendship than what I'm used to, and I loved reading about the intricacies of Amisa's relationships with herself and others. The voices of all three of these women are ferocious and unapologetic, even Szu's unsure one, and they were fiercely refreshing to read. Bizarre and vivid, desperate and surreal, Ponti is a dark, delicious read.