Book review - The Sum of Our Follies by Shih-Li Kow

Since learning that Malaysian writer Shih-Li Kow’s collection of short stories – Ripple and Other Stories - was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, coming ahead of collections by prestigious authors like Ali Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro among others, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading her work.

In the mean time she wrote her first novel, The Sum of Our Follies, which has been translated into French (by a blind man) and Italian, and also won the French 2018 Prix du Premier Roman étranger.

Last November I met the writer herself in person at the George Town Literary Festival and I had to confess that to my shame that beyond a single short story published in a collection of Malaysian writing I still hadn’t read any of her work. This obviously needed to be remedied, so I bought both of her books at Gerakbudaya’s new bookshop in Hikayat on George Town’s Beach Street.

I started by reading her most recent work, The Sum of Our Follies. I was not disappointed. While her writing hasn’t (yet) attained the quite the same sort of international recognition as high-profile Man Booker listed Malaysian writers like Tan Twan Eng or Tash Aw, she is most certainly deserving of being mentioned in the category of Malaysia’s top contemporary English-language writers.

The Sum of Our Follies is part Bildungsroman, following the progression of Mary Anne from a near-institutionalized orphan to a worldly and competent part-manager of a guesthouse in semi-rural Perak. This transition is not an easy one and Mary Anne is scarred, literally and figuratively, by her experiences.

The novel’s alternate narrator is Auyong, an older man who owns a lychee-canning factory in the small town that Mary Anne slowly learns to think of as home. Each gives their own take on a series of event that vary from the mundane to the extraordinary, with touches of magical realism worked in as seamlessly as in stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The novel is touching, without ever veering into sentimentalism. In fact it is often wry and witty, with several oblique references to Malaysian current affairs that readers unfamiliar with the context might not pick up on (a female political figure with hair piled up like candy floss). But an in depth knowledge of Malaysia is far from a prerequisite to enjoy this wonderful novel.

Every scene is beautifully constructed, in writing that is evocative but never florid. For readers curious about contemporary Malaysian writing I highly recommend The Sum of Our Follies as a starting point. And for those already familiar with the genre but who haven’t gotten around to reading this one yet, you won’t be disappointed. Ripples and other stories is still on my to-read shelf, but I’m looking forward to it all the more for having read this wonderful novel.

Available in-shop or online from Gerakbudaya or any good Malaysian bookshops.…/fic…/the-sum-of-our-follies/


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