If I Could Tell You
Marshall Cavendish Editions 2013
Reviewed by Bob Wake
From neglected children and lost young adults, to the developmentally disabled and the forgotten elderly, If I Could Tell You is narrated by a wide range of multigenerational and multicultural voices. The setting for Lee Jing-Jing’s graceful debut novel is both exotic and excruciating: A condemned public-housing apartment building in Singapore. Most of its residents have been relocated. The skeleton crew of remaining occupants comprise “the old, the poor, people who have had trouble finding a new home.” The novel’s opening pages include a jumper from the upper floors lying dead on the pavement below.
The jumper’s death haunts the neighborhood if not the television news. “I guess it was much too ordinary,” muses a middle-aged unemployed electronics engineer, dismayed by the absence of media coverage. His thoughts return again and again to the tragedy. Soon his dreams are enveloped in apocalyptic imagery:
Then I was on the ground, below the block of flats, looking up while the building leaned to the right, tossing my wife and daughter out of the naked window. The building crashed to the ground like a felled tree, but slowly, silently, as if the weight of it was nothing more than a browned leaf, a scrap of paper. All the while, I just stood and watched and did nothing, my hands hanging by my sides, my feet heavy as rocks. The dream stayed with me the rest of the day. I could hardly look at my wife and daughter during breakfast.
Lee Jing-Jing, currently living in Germany, has spoken in a newspaper interview about her public-housing upbringing in Singapore (the book’s cover photo, taken by the author, depicts a now-demolished block of apartments where her aunt once lived). While If I Could Tell You immerses us in poverty and broken lives, nothing here is sensationalized or made mawkish. The unwavering matter-of-factness of the storytelling yields enormous narrative and dramatic power as the novel unfolds.
Language barriers add to the isolation of some characters, such as an eighty-year-old Cantonese-speaking Chinese woman known in the neighborhood as “Cardboard Auntie” because she collects cardboard box scraps and sells them from a cart on the streets. Cardboard Auntie’s impoverished external life masks a roiling internal world of brutal memories (“Tch, I’ve seen worse. When the Japanese were here. Much worse”) and borderline delusional conversations with her deceased husband, whom she addresses as the Old One (“Old One, what do you want for lunch? Fan wat ze jook? Rice or porridge?”).
If I Could Tell You is not without a kind of mordant Hitchcockian humor: the jumper’s falling body is witnessed by multiple characters, often out of the corner of the eye, allowing the author to replay the gruesome event from a variety of subliminal perspectives (“something fell through the air, close enough that they felt and heard the whoosh as it went past them”). It’s a rare debut novel that’s written with such assured mastery of style and tone. The final pages give voice to a character whose despair is so complete that it would be unendurable for most of us. By focusing on the rich inner lives of its societal outcasts, If I Could Tell You tells us plenty: Lee Jing-Jing has written as fine a work of literary fiction as you’re likely to read this year.