O Thiam Chin, Now That It's Over (2016), Epigram Books.
Now That It’s Over was the winning script for the inaugural Epigram Prize last year — the largest literature prize in Singapore’s history. O Thiam Chin’s debut novel is a literal tour de force that deals with a topic unfamiliar to Singapore — natural catastrophe. The novel portrays the relationship of four Singaporeans — Ai Ling, Wei Xiang, Cody, and Chee Seng — who ventured for a holiday retreat in Phuket, Thailand and suffer the consequences of experiencing a tsunami first-hand. But, the tsunami isn’t the main cause which destroys their relationships, it simply reveals the hidden depths of lies, deceits, and personal demons lying beneath.
It’s been over 12 years since the tragedy in Phuket and O Thiam Chin spent four long years carefully crafting the four unique characters. He tells the story from these four different perspectives and intercuts the narratives to paint a quiet core of discontent that permeates their lives. Ai Ling keeps a horrible secret from Wei Xiang that continues to haunt her as Wei Xiang desperately searches for his temperamental wife. Meanwhile, Chee Seng struggles with the commitment of domestic partnership and Cody ponders the journey that brought them to the brink of self destruction. O Thiam Chin said that “I didn’t want to do a single narrative kind of story as I felt that something of that magnitude deserved multiple voices.” He achieves his desired effect as it is surprising to discover that the fleshed-out characters are entirely fictional.
In the novel, it’s the small moments that carries profound impact: Cody’s budding friendship with his male schoolmate during his youth, Ai Ling’s misunderstanding of Cody’s affections, Chee Seng’s dismissal of Cody’s gifts, and the dissolution of marriage for Wei Xiang’s parents due to a terrible secret. The novel provides multiple narrative threads that seduce the readers to keep on reading. O Thiam Chin’s writing strength has always been fleshed-out characters and he utilises his entire repertoire in this debut novel.
Interestingly, the characters are so central to the narrative that the location contracts into a nebulous space. There are mentions of actual streets and locations in Phuket but it lacks a strong anchor to feel like an actual, liveable place. To compensate, O Thiam Chin cleverly maps the topography of shattered souls through the intentional lack of detailed geography. The unrecognisable terrain works extremely well for the story as it mimics the disorienting headspace of the main characters. The place is as alien to them as it is to us.
There have been many novels about natural catastrophe and the tragedies that it engenders but Now That It’s Over is refreshing in its portrayal of destruction of the worst kind — self-destruction. The two couples are dissatisfied with the mundane emptiness in their lives and it is only through an act of God that some of them manage to move forward, the novelist ably illustrating the tragedy of suffering an emotional tsunami; battered by waves of insecurity, deceit, and misunderstanding. By the end, we’re left wondering, Now That It’s Over — what’s next?
Now That It's Over is available online from Epigram Books and in leading bookstores in Singapore.