S. L. Lim’s second novel is a vicious delight – a lit fuse that means to burn the whole house down.
We first meet the protagonist, Yannie, as a clever young girl. She learns early that the world is not only violent but also senseless: reality changes shape and adults can pretend whatever they like. Yet despite her brother’s cruelty, her mother’s manipulation of reality and her father’s feebleness, Yannie seems electric with promise, with the possibility of discovery and escape.
Again and again, however, her parents choose her brother Shan over her, sending him to study overseas while Yannie is denied a university education. She must work in their shop and look after them as they age. Soon Yannie is middle-aged herself, her parents dead and her days steeped in the drudgery of being poor. As with so many daughters, her life was never supposed to be her own. So she travels to Shan’s new home in Sydney, resolving to kill him.
Lim draws a precise taxonomy of bitterness in Revenge, pinpointing the violations of dignity that shatter a child who is just coming to know herself, and the incremental deprivation of opportunity that lays waste to talent. The characters are exact; the prose is liquid. Between each line is the hum of fury and yearning.
The novel toys with the frame of a feminist revenge fantasy but Yannie makes an atypical heroine. Her rage is not sexy or witty or glamorous. It’s curdled resentment, sour and hard, obsessive and cracked. Her desire, too, is tinged with the abject: her decades-long yearning for her former schoolmate Shuying, now a wilfully obtuse housewife, is akin to picking at a scab, hoping it will bleed again: “Love reversed into revulsion: a wet glove turned inside out.”
A spectrum of possibilities was stolen from Yannie because she was a woman – or rather, because her parents were poor and favoured their son; because patriarchy, because capitalism – but nothing can restore it. And restoration is not the point: the novel makes clear we can’t all live like Shans.
Lim doesn’t give us just deserts. Their interest in revolutionary ethics and politics takes us further as they unravel the premise of talent and achievement, family and responsibility. In a world where so few people get what they need, let alone what they deserve, vengeance is at best a side dish. What does it mean to live a life of value in this economy?
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2020 as "S. L. Lim, Revenge".
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