‘I’m the one who’s in charge around here.’
Shan and Yannie, brother and sister, both aspire to attend university. But only Shan is able to. Yannie is required, as a dutiful daughter, to stay home to help in the family store, to look after her parents. Shan attends university. He finds success in the UK and then in Australia.
Her parents have gone into debt to support Shan’s pursuit of education. Yannie has two friends: Jun (who is unable to share his feelings) and Shuying, who distances herself after marrying. Yannie takes on work as a tutor. Yannie looks after her parents until they die. Her life is one of duty, carried out with barely suppressed rage.
With Jun’s help, Yannie travels to Sydney where her brother, his wife Evelyn and daughter Kat live. She and Evelyn become friendly. And Yannie quickly realises that Shan is (still) a bully. He controls his wife and daughter and aims to take over the company he works for. Shan is a perfect one-dimensional villain.
Yannie is a more complex character. She encourages her niece and longs for a relationship with Shuying. She wants Evelyn to recognise the price she is paying for the lifestyle Shan provides. She wants revenge on Shan. What form will it take, and what will the consequences be?
‘This is the point where fiction and reality must diverge. In real life, to disagree violently is usually a metaphor. Most human beings are lazy, conflict-averse and not especially imaginative. They stay out of trouble, defer to authority, and hope any anomalous situation will resolve without much intervention on their part. By contrast, characters in novels murder each other left and right for fairly trivial reasons.’
Ms Lim identifies so many issues in this novel including conformity with family expectations and roles regardless of the cost to the individual, the disregard for others exhibited by those who grow up without boundaries, the pain of lost opportunity, and the non-acceptance of same-sex relationships. I finished the novel wondering about the relative unfairness of life for Yannie and so many others.