Review: Once We Were There by Bernice Chauly


By Bernice Chauly

Publisher: Epigram Books, too many pages

Let’s get straight to the point: Bernice Chauly’s debut novel, Once We Were There, does not work, for me.

Reasons why it doesn’t work:

The protagonist’s name

I still can’t get over it and I wonder why the author chose to saddle her character with such a silly, pretentious and distracting name. However, Delonix Regia (I kid you not) is the Latin name of the flame of the forest tree, and as the plant is also known as royal poinciana, I guess Del (as she wisely chooses to call herself) could have fared worse. (P.S. Del also gives her daughter a Latin plant name, and so, the cycle of abuse continues.)

The characters …

  • There are too many characters of a certain type: English-speaking, wealthy, middle-class, mixed-race (preferably with one white parent), educated-in-the-West, chain-smoking, hard-drinking. They’re exactly the sort of people I stay away from in RL, and I find spending time with fictional versions just as unpleasant.
  • The one character who isn’t middle class, wealthy and privileged-as-fuck is a trans woman prostitute (the most likeable and most interesting person in the novel). Reading about these lives at either end of the class divide made me feel like a bystander, gawking through a window at people completely alien to me. While I appreciated the views offered, I’d also have liked to read about characters who are more familiar, just to complete the picture of Kuala Lumpur in the 90s and early noughties. Now, I don’t have to like the characters in a book to enjoy a book, but in this case, the writing didn’t help me empathise with or understand anyone I was reading about (see Too Much Telling), and so, knowing where they were coming from (at very least) wasn’t even on the cards.
  • The characters who are journalists are caricatures of stereotypes: they drink like fish, smoke like chimneys, swear like sailor and fuck like rabbits. According to Del (herself a reporter, first with a magazine, then with a news portal) ‘most journalists [are] alcoholics’ as it ‘comes with the territory’ (really?). Furthermore, the foreign journalists in the novel, in KL to cover Anwar Ibrahim’s trial, have an ‘air of fatigue around them, of blood and bombs’. It’s kinda funny, really, how these chaps have all worked in war zones, ‘dodged real [as opposed to?] bullets’ and ‘seen dead bodies’. What in the world are they doing in KL? Vacationing? Or have they been demoted? These men are heroes to Del, even the ones who ‘[banged] pussy all the way from Rwanda … to Bosnia’. *eyeroll*

Check Those Boxes

  • Political upheaval … check.
  • Transgender rights … check.
  • Human trafficking … check.
  • Corruption … check.
  • Sexism and racism … check.
  • Sex … check.
  • Drugs … check.

Sadly, no rock ‘n’ roll.

Too much telling

I’m not usually concerned when authors tell more than they show, but too much of Once We Were There reads like Del’s diary: This happens, then this, and this and this. There’s hardly any dialogue so we rarely get the characters’ points of view. It’s largely Del reporting on her melodramatic life and the life of her melodramatic friends. So, she describes events, and tells how things feel, how everyone reacts, what happens next, and we take it in. There are pages and pages of it, with all-too-rare lines of conversation breaking the monotony. The sheer bulk of the narrative makes for tedious reading, and keeps me at arm’s length because I need dialogue to provide variation and pull me into the lives of the characters.

The Kindness of Strangers

Del has two drug-laced escapades in the book and each time, she meets a handsome, wealthy man who is kind to her (she marries one of them).

This is how her husband, Omar, describes the encounter:

‘You, standing there in the morning light. Torn skirt, red shirt unbuttoned, standing like a five-year-old tottering in her mother’s heels for the first time. Your hair glowing around your shoulders. You were shivering, your eyes wild. And I, like a fool, fell in love.’

The second man is called Shah: ‘Shah. With the penthouse, Porsche, designer apartment and sexy tongue.’

Del wakes in his place the morning after a night of excess: ‘… sunlight streamed through the thick glass panes into the living room. Two bottles of Dom, smudged lones on the table, clothes, shoes strewn around. The Twin Towers bounched light from the morning sun. I had never seen them this high up. This was a view from a million dollar penthouse.’

These descriptions are laughable, the sort of thing that I would have been taken by at 14, and would have written at 18. ‘For mature readers only’ cautions the blurb on the cover, but I think you’d have to be an impressionable teenager to be impressed.

And here’s the thing, the drink- and drug-fueled lifestyles are always presented as if to impress. Maybe Del is impressed. Maybe Chauly also finds the debauchery exciting. I know I would have lapped it up when I was young and silly, when I smoked to look cool.

In conclusion

I’ve been told that Once We Were There is a criticism of liberal, politically-aware middle-class Malaysians, playing at being activists, but benefiting from the government policies they condemn. Perhaps that is what was intended, but what comes across more than anything else is the air of breathless awe at the lives described.

The Reformasi setting is meant to reveal the dirty realities of Malaysian politics and portray an exciting recent period of social and political upheaval, when Malaysians were inspired to seek justice and reform. However, Chauly’s depiction of the events are too shallow and one-sided; her characters make all the right sounds, but these are social justice warriors who are really not much better than white saviours, fighting against wrongs they have never personally experienced. As it turns out, the paths their lives take reflect just how insincere their activism was to be begin with. There was never a moment when I was convinced that they really cared about what they were shaking their designer-clad, Penhaligon-scented fists over.

Once We Were There reads like a work of a young writer who hasn’t found her own voice and hasn’t yet figured out what she wants to say. This is disappointing, surprising and puzzling considering Chauly’s experience, and considering how glowing reviews have been.

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