Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong

Translated by Natascha Bruce

Review by David Hebblethwaite, 21 November 2019

Ho Sok Fong is a Malaysian writer whose short stories have won a number of awards. Lake Like a Mirror is her second collection, originally published in Chinese in 2014. The women at the heart of these nine stories are not in full control of their own lives. Sok Fong explores how they try to negotiate the currents that carry them to and fro.

The collection’s title serves it well, that image of a placid surface which could erupt into turmoil with just a slight disturbance. The story “Lake Like a Mirror” centres on a university lecturer who is keen not to rock the boat:

She was thirty-five and had been in her position at the university for four years, but still felt like a baby just learning to crawl. The most she ever spoke was while teaching. And sometimes she wondered what those docile young elk took away from her seminars. Another day rolled past, and what had she said? Had she been careful enough? Could someone have misinterpreted her words? Had she been true to herself?

The calm of this woman’s life is shattered when a complaint is made about the content of a poem she was teaching. The story ends with her swerving off the road to avoid a deer, and taking the time to settle into the situation where she now finds herself. It’s a striking image that reflects the change which the protagonist has undergone.

Some of the stories in Lake Like a Mirror push into a sideways version of reality. “The Wall’ begins with developers announcing they will build a wall by a row of houses to keep out the noise from a neighbouring road. But the wall is so high that it blocks out the sunlight, creating an abstract environment where characters become dislocated from normality. This is a space where a woman can looking for her missing cat after she’s grown so thin that she can fit through the gap in her back door.

“March in a Small Town” is the tale of Cui Yi, who’s growing bored of working in her aunt’s guest house. But she becomes intrigued by one guest, who visits the place repeatedly but with no apparent memory of having been there before. Cui Yi resolves to follow him and finds him following a similar-but-different routine each time, and able to return to the guest house impossibly quickly. So this man stuck in a looping existence is the key to Cui Yi moving beyond the stasis in her life.

Metaphors will often come to life in Sok Fong’s stories. In “The Chest”, An Yah finds her grandfather’s old gramophone chest – now full of odds and ends – and brings it out into the shop, wondering what to do with it. The chest comes to represent the past and tradition, and seems to bring misfortune on the shop: an unpleasant smell, an infestation of rats, a possible break-in. An Yah has to face the past if she is to move forward – starting with that chest.

Lake Like a Mirror is a collection of stories that take different paths but end up feeling a unified whole. I’ll be looking out for more of Ho Sok Fong’s work in the future.

David Hebblethwaite blogs at http://www.davidsbookworld.com/

Ho Sok Fong, Lake Like a Mirror (Granta Books, 2019). 978-1846276903, 208pp., paperback.

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