REVIEW: Sarong Party Girls – Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Sarong Party Girls

Author: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Genre: Humour, contemporary fiction

Just before her twenty-seventh birthday, Jazzy hatches a plan. Before the year is out, she and her best girlfriends will all have spectacular weddings to rich ang moh – Western expat – husbands, with Chanel babies to follow.

As Jazzy – razor-sharp and vulgar, yet vulnerable – fervently pursues her quest to find a white husband, the contentious gender politics and class tensions thrumming beneath the shiny exterior of Singapore’s glamorous nightclubs are revealed. Desperate to move up in Asia’s financial and international capital, will Jazzy and her friends succeed?

This book was pitched on Netgalley as ideal for fans of Crazy Rich Asians, and I flipping loved Crazy Rich Asians, so I was in there like swimwear. It’s pitched as a high-life, high-style satire, perhaps a little bit How to Marry a Millionaire with three girls trying to find rich husbands to elevate their social status. In actuality, it was more emotional than that, and more personal. It reminded me more of Queenie than Crazy Rich Asians, perhaps with a hint of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the book, not the film).

Jazzy comes across as naïve, even though she sees herself as wise to the ways of the world – which is where my comparison to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes comes in – whilst ending up in sexual situations which are undesirable and which she doesn’t enjoy but she seems powerless to stop, rather like Queenie. The comparison to Crazy Rich Asians gives the idea this that might be lush and lightweight comedy, but honestly the misogyny that was deeply embedded in this was really quite unpleasant. The story focuses on three ‘normal’ girls who are aiming to marry white men to improve their social status. These girls have jobs, live in small flats with their parents, and are only able to party the way they do because they are dependent on the generosity of wealthier men. It’s a vulnerable position to be in.

It’s also written in Singlish, the patois of Singapore which the government has tried to stamp out through various campaigns. It’s looked down on as a dialect, seen as inferior. I loved reading the rhythms and the formations of the sentences, it felt so different from my language and so full of character. There are no translations provided, at least there weren’t in my ebook advance, so meaning has to be gleaned from context when words from other languages are thrown about. I loved the choice to use Singlish, because it added to the impact of the book and emphasised the book as a protest, a statement against the author’s perception of injustices – whether it’s government control of languages or institutional misogyny. The Singlish was another reason I was reminded of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as Lorelei’s voice in that is uniquely her own and entirely constructed around the dialect she has assumed.

I found it an unusual book as while there was character development, it took a while to come. Instead, there was reader development – the more I learned about Jazzy, the more I understood and empathised with her. The book opens with her seeming like a shallow social climber, but the more I was exposed to the daily misogyny she faced from her boss, her friends, and men around her, the more I could see her reasons. Surrounded by men who cheat on their wives, who objectify women constantly and casually, who refuse to recognise physical boundaries, and even men who have whole second families while still married, Jazzy sees Western men as a way to escape. She is convinced that Westerners have different ideals about monogamy, commitment and faithfulness, and that they will treat her better.

It’s a strange mix because the book shows Jazzy and her friends trying to step up their game in terms of man-snaring after one of their friends was “lost” – i.e. she married a local man. In making this decision, Jazzy forces herself further beyond her comfort zone in a lot of ways to scope out the “competition” for the rich, white men. She goes to a bar with sexy dancers, and even a brothel. With each visit, she becomes more uncomfortable with the behaviour of the men around her, but also more concerned for the girls she sees in these places, particularly as she connects them to previous encounters that pop up in her memories. Her empathy overwhelms her view of them as an enemy.

Much like Queenie, I felt so sad for Jazzy when it became clear how little she valued herself, but also how little the people around her valued her. At 26, people are telling her she is past it, she is getting overlooked for younger women, and feels like she is being set up for failure by men who are abusing their power over her. There is definitely triggering material in terms of dubiously consensual/coercive sex.

I feel that comparing this to Crazy Rich Asians also implied that this would be a romance novel, so a lot of the book was spent trying to work out which of the plotlines would lead to a happy ending. None of the men in this book come out terribly well, although some seem less awful in comparison to a very shallow pool of candidates. If you’re looking for a romance, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a book with a confident woman trying to continually prove her worth in a society which constantly tells her she is worthless unless as something to look at, and even that’s not going to be for much longer as she ages up to *gasp* 27.

As a feminist, this book made me furious for Jazzy. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t more angry, why she wasn’t more frustrated at the unfairness of it all. But it becomes clear that this has been part of her society all her life. It’s ingrained into her, and she has to unlearn her own prejudices and perceptions. I would be curious to know how well this reflects Singapore from someone who lives there or is familiar with the country.

If you’re looking for an unusual book which changes your mind as the character changes hers, this is a good stop. It’s got real heart, and personality. But it’s definitely not a romance.

Briefly:

  • A book which fully commits to its character and its tone, I loved the use of Singlish and the way my mind was changed about Jazzy rather than her changing to fit the expectations of the narrative.
  • It’s full of flagrant and outstanding misogyny and sexual harassment. If ever there was a book that proved that #MeToo needs to be global, and its work isn’t finished, this is it.
  • I think this book asks the reader to come to the narrator rather than bringing the narrator to the reader. It’s a narrative which encourages you not to judge first, and that’s important.

Rating: 4/5 – I would have liked a more triumphant ending for Jazzy, but I recognise also the poetic value of the understated way it did finish.

 

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Sarong Party Girls – Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s