When you call your book Revenge: Murder in Three Parts, you’re giving your reader a fair idea of what is to come. And S. L. Lim delivers precisely what the title promises, although this is far from a traditional murder story.
So why read this book when the title is a spoiler? Because the tension, the bitterness, and Lim’s restraint is evident from the very first line (‘I’m the one who’s in charge around here’) – it is strangely compelling to inch toward a known outcome.
The story is set in Malaysia, and focuses on a family where the son, Shan, is favoured over the daughter, Yannie. Shan is cruel and abusive, and from the outset, as he flings Yannie across the room, it is clear there are no consequences for his behaviour, and no boundaries within the traditional, patriarchal family.
Although Yannie knows Shan is ‘stupid’, their parents make a huge financial sacrifice and send him to university. When Yannie completes high school (excelling in every subject and earning a scholarship), she is told she must instead work in the family’s shop and care for her ageing parents.
She only had one youth, given up to morality, the care of old people growing older. She might have had beauty and truth, sex and drugs and young people’s music… All the while her brother stuffed his face with wonderful experiences, took whatever he could and made for the horizon…
Outwardly, Yannie accepts her role without much resistance. Inwardly, she rages – against the expectations and assumptions of others, and against her own inaction.
Either you embark on a new category of experience – husbands, weddings, childbirth – or else the only milestones you have to look forward to are ones of loss.
After her mother’s death, Yannie travels to Sydney and becomes enmeshed in Shan’s new life, befriending his wife Evelyn, and tutoring their daughter, Kat.
The central premise of the book is that ‘family is everything’ and that our loyalty and trust must lay with them. The ludicrousness of that concept for any person living in an abusive family is patently obvious, however, that is often only revealed when a person has escaped their situation. There’s a pivotal moment in the book when Kat says to Evelyn, ‘Other people are not the enemy, Ma’ and it is suddenly clear to Yannie that the ‘enemy’ might indeed be those closest. By the end, Yannie knows this to be true – ‘I refuse to accept this siege mentality, that inside of the family is light and outside is a tank of sharks. Fuck families.’
The success of Revenge lies in Yannie’s palpable bitterness. There are dozens of examples –
Now begin the long years of waiting. Entropy. The slow drain of heat and light from where there is life to where there is none. During these years you don’t think about the future. Not because you’re stupid, but because if you looked it in the eye, you’d never open your eyes again.
All the cities she might have walked in: gone. The words she might have written, the insights she might have reached if only her mind hadn’t been nibbled up by the menial, petty business of survival.
The murder, when it happens, is oddly anti-climatic. Without spoilers, there are a handful of other scenes that have greater impact (each violent in their own way, each testing boundaries within families, each exploring the meaning of loyalty).
I wasn’t a huge fan of the pacing and change of style in the last section of the story (a 22-page epilogue) – some of Yannie’s bitterness remained but, with her revenge executed, her character flattened and any suggestion of a more positive future felt hollow and unlikely. Perhaps fury is just too difficult to sustain – in life and on the page.
The value of a threat equals its power plus uncertainty. The victim has to believe there’s a chance you might actually do it – even though, practically speaking, it would be easier on everyone if you didn’t.
3.5/5 Not sure it has all the ingredients to win the Stella but well worth the read.
Yannie flinched as she saw Shan’s hand move through the air. She saw an object flying, a hot golden blur. The crumpet sailed through the air, collided with some force against the sliding glass doors, and slid to the carpet.