Monday, January 13, 2014

The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza's by Cyril Wong

What a haunting novel this is. I'm still thinking about it as I'm on board this train to Somerset, long after I've left Queenstown Library. 

What meant to be a session where I'd resolved to analyse the contents of Melanie Chew's "Leaders of Singapore" turned out to be a miserable failure when I realized that the National Library Board had removed the book and put it in the Used Book Repository and the only way I'd have access to it was to head to Bras Basah to Lee Kong Chian's Reference Library. 

So I picked up this novel, disappointed that the library didn't stock Cyril Wong's poetry and merely intended to flip through it cursorily to find out what his writing style was. I ended up turning the pages compulsively, finishing it promptly within an hour and a half. 

I've read nothing quite like it honestly. Set in Singapore in 1999, it's a tale narrated by Mrs De Souza on her last day of teaching. Instead of conducting her usual English lesson, she instead rambles on about life, occasionally answering her students' questions. Now that caught my attention, being one who teaches English to dyslexic students and one who encourages them to think critically about life. 

But more than that, it is a story where she reflects on a student from many years past, a boy called Amir, who decided to come out to Mrs De Souza one day. He tragically ends up committing suicide and she wonders if she had played a part in his death. If you want to know, right at the very end of the book, the reader finds out in a suicide letter that she certainly did because in a bout of good intent, she outed him to his father. 

So many thoughts were going through my mind as I read this novel. Was this the author's experience in coming out? Being outed by others? Did the author also have a mom that hated life after getting married and resenting the fact that her opportunities were sacrificed for her children? Is this how it feels like to lose a spouse, to think about him/her all the time?

I think what's most haunting about it was the fact that one's actions might have such irreversible effects. And of course the moral of the tale could probably be surmised into this: "Don't out another person." Though to do so is probably a simplistic summary of a book filled with layers of thought and emotion. 

Every Singaporean should read this. 

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