Over the last few years, I’ve been intentional about seeking out local literature in whatever city I am in. While visiting home (Singapore) in the summer, I received Tania de Rozario’s And the Walls Come Crumbling Down as a gift from BooksActually. It’s the first title opening my 2017 lineup of monthly reviews for jaziimun’s Shelf Life.
Short verdict: If you’re a fan of confessional prose and postmodern stream-of-consciousness narrative structures, this is a book for you.
I’m not sure why I expected poetry when I first began reading it, maybe because de Rozario employs a sensual voice who speaks in extremely detailed language. I was puzzling over the strange rhythm and tone of the speaker as I started the book and it didn’t occur to me until about halfway through the first chapter that I was, in fact, reading prose.
Only when I caught on that I’d imposed a genre on the narrative voice did I backpedal and subsequently settle into the linguistic rhythms of the narrator.
Published in 2016, And the Walls Come Crumbling Down is written in three large sections, further subdivided into shorter chapters. Each section centres a different event, interweaving multiple events and chronological timelines together to create a web of memory, event and sentiment to affect degrees of loss, isolation and desire that resonate throughout the text.
The narrative voice speaks to her lover, but also seems to be aware of the readers’ witness to her monologue, and therefore often also almost address us. This creates a strange opaque access common to stream-of-consciousness narrative, except here, it also feels like I intercepted a series of love letters going one way and became privy to content that wasn’t meant for me.
What I Loved:
- The “Drawers” and “Bed” chapters – these pages vibrated with an intensity I felt at a visceral level (I may have, in fact, clenched my torso for the entirety of it). de Rozario’s language here is raw and vulnerable, but full of strength.
- Co-opting biblical stories with a degree of sophistication – I was particularly fond of the Jericho metaphor, the way it unpacked a point of tension in the narrator, and how it subverted my interpretation of what it meant for the walls to crumble (read: decay and an end), nudging me instead in a different direction (read: defenses come down, desire for repaired relationship).
“But on that seventh round, on that seventh day, as the priests, half-faithful, placed their lips to their mouthpieces, the war cry was followed by the deafening roar of logic collapsing in on itself.”
- The deft weaving different events to illuminate moments – in the text there is a metaphorical conceit of a house falling to pieces, through which a number of interpretative themes move rather fluidly. When done sloppily, conceits become fatigued and obvious, but in this text, the house is at once a physical structure, a site of memory, a stand-in for an actual body, the manifestation of emotion and relationship, and the painful grip of history. The lack of linear chronology forced me to pay attention to which metaphorical structure was in play at that moment.
- My own initial confusion over genre and voice – the reason I highlight this is because, as a result of wrong expectations, I considered what it meant to read on the narrator’s terms. Additionally, in working to accept the narrative voice on her terms (a voice which as a writer, I would not personally employ), I was also forced to evaluate my responses, emotions, and opinions in relation to the speaker’s posture. What better way to experience a book than to puzzle out what it means to listen to the narrator, and realize the set of reading assumptions I uncritically take for granted?
What I Didn’t Love:
- The “Blueprints” chapter – the extended metaphor of the house creeped into larger commentary on housing history and policy in Singapore. Although I appreciated the intent, and understood the thematic leap, it felt jarring to me, perhaps because of the way the tone shifted slightly to accommodate the subject matter. It also included an extended narration of a named character who had his story told in chronological order. For me, that particular linearity and straightforward retell sat at odds with the general fluid narrative voice in the rest of the text.
- In relation to the note above, a lot of de Rozario’s language offered up all its content directly. It was language that told instead of showing, and the details prevented me from having strong affective responses. I was told immediately what type of feeling I should be having, and on occasion, the metaphors bordered on platitudes.I did understand that this narrator was determined I should see, hear and understand what she wanted me to – in other words, her voice was absolute, even when the content was a process of wavering. The overwhelming details in each sentence had a forceful effect of focusing my gaze specifically, shaping and shifting on her terms. I would have, instead, loved to be free to move around in the speaker’s voice, to pick up on emotive threads instead of being presented with the totality of a picture woven out of all the details.
Overall, this book was a pleasant and engaging read to begin this year’s Shelf Life series. It did what every good book should do – demand my attention and resist an easy interpretation.
Exploring a wide spectrum of writers allows me to be more self-aware of my own tastes and preferences, but also to situate my own literary voice in multiple contexts. The Shelf Life series is a record of my ongoing desire to be critical of my bookshelf, to understand the power of choice I have in reading who I read, and loving who I love. In that sense, this book opened up a lot of headspace to explore these thoughts.
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