(Post prompted by me for some unknown reason thinking of Hwee Hwee Tan and her book “Foreign Bodies”, and then doing a www search and finding and reading some of the links given below. Doing that and thinking about what to write about “Foreign Bodies” prompted me to also write about “Yoruba Girl Dancing” by Simi Bedford and “All She Was Worth” by Miyuki Miyabe”)
“Foreign Bodies” by Hwee Hwee Tan was published in 1997, and I must have bought it soon afterwards. I probably noticed it because at the time whenever I went into a bookshop I looked to see if there were any copies of “Yoruba Girl Dancing” by Simi Bedford (which also I highly recommend – see below) and any books by Amy Tan – I wasn’t necessarily going to buy “Yoruba Girl Dancing” or any of Amy Tan’s books (although I did often buy a copy of “Yoruba Girl Dancing” to give as a present to somebody sometime), I just wanted to be reassured that good bookshops were still stocking these books.
So I probably saw Hwee Hwee Tan’s book when I was looking for books by Amy Tan, probably skim-read the first page or two, and decided to buy it.
I started to read it late at night the same or following day, and kept reading until I finished it early in the morning some hours later. Subsequently I lent my copy to a friend and gave the book as a present to another friend.
The first – who was and is a practicing Christian, relevant because that is, I think, also true of Hwee Hwee Tan – liked the first part of the book very much, but stopped reading because it was getting darker, and she suspected it was going to become very dark. (She was correct.)
The second – who was and is an atheist – took the book on holiday and combined reading it with reading a book or possibly research paper called “Dancing with Mr D” (D for Death), and subsequently said to me that her initial reaction was why has this man given me such a light book, but that reading on she appreciated it more when it became darker.
Summer fiction – His and her journeybooks – 17 July 1997
The gender gap is nowhere so starkly obvious as in the popular fiction that provides harmless holiday escapism. Women want a slowly unfolding story strong on feelings, psychological insight, humanity and love. Men want a fast-moving story with occasional blasts of uncomplicated sex without foreplay. They also want tons and tons of information. Indeed it is hard to find a journeybook for men that is not partly a self-help manual: how to manufacture a bomb, get from Peru to Shanghai by the most efficient route, launder ill-gotten gains, take brilliant photographs, chop up a body or pull a curvaceous babe.
The American guru who has profited from the revelation that women are from Venus and men from Mars is backed up by the contents of airport bookstalls and the contrast between what might be called the introspective or intronovel and the information-packed or infonovel—Maeve Binchy as opposed to Frederick Forsyth. Men think intronovels are sentimental tosh; women think infonovels are boring. Women think intronovels are helpful explorations of the human condition; men invest infonovels with significance because of all the serious though useless facts they contain.
[There then follow reviews of books by: John Grisham, Patrick O’Brian – infonovels; Mary Wesley – intronovel; Hwee Hwee Tan – both? – see below; Reginald Hill – “neither intro nor info: just good”.]
… Hwee Hwee Tan is six decades younger than Miss Wesley. Her first novel,“Foreign Bodies”, is almost indecently accomplished for a 23-year-old. And although, in its preoccupation with human beings, hers fits into the woman-friendly category, she packs in so much information painlessly that men might deign to try her for the sake of finding out about betting on soccer in Singapore, Chinese funeral rites or pop culture. Her occasional bursts of evangelical Christianity could distress the irreligious, but they will be consoled by her sardonic intelligence. What makes hers a novel of distinction is its bleak and informed portrayal of the psychology of the expatriate. …
I don’t want to say too much about the book itself, partly
other than to say