By Mandakini Arora
The Accidental Malay by Karina Robles Bahrin, 2022
The Accidental Malay caught my eye at the WH Smith bookstore in Changi Airport. I was searching for a book to review as easy summer reading and am also always looking out for new Singapore and Malaysian fiction. Winner of the 2022 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, awarded to Southeast Asian writers, the novel is a fairly engaging story about gender, race, and religion in contemporary Malaysia. I agree with Suffian Hakim—one of the many renowned Singapore and Malaysian writers to endorse the novel—who describes it as a welcome addition to the growing corpus of postcolonial writing on Malay people by Malay people.
The protagonist is forty-one-year-old Jasmine Leong who lives in Kuala Lumpur. Her Chinese father was killed in the 13 May race riots of 1969 and she knows almost nothing about her mother. She was raised by her paternal grandmother in Ipoh. Grandma, Jasmine’s redoubtable Poh Poh, is CEO of the family company, Phoenix, a property developer also famed for its bak kwa. There are two men in Jasmine’s orbit. Iskandar, a Malay Muslim, is Jasmine’s old love interest from the UK where they were both students. Back in Malaysia, family and social constraints pulled them apart. He married a Muslim woman but is back in Jasmine’s life. Then there is the Chinese Kuan Yew, the Ipoh goldsmith’s hunky son and Jasmine’s childhood acquaintance, now Australia returned and well established in Kuala Lumpur.
The story moves between Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh. The question of what home means is nicely woven into the narrative; and the author’s descriptions of Poh Poh’s Ipoh house, where Jasmine grew up and where she clearly feels grounded, are visually evocative. The novel made me want to visit Ipoh. The best-portrayed relationship in the book is that of Jasmine and her cousin Kevin, who is gay. The endearing Kevin’s oblivious mother, Jasmine’s aunt, would dearly like him to marry, have babies, and take over as CEO of Phoenix even as he is happy to leave the latter to Cousin Jasmine. Meanwhile, in a startling discovery (not a spoiler—it’s on the back cover) Jasmine learns that she is Muslim by birth. This leads to public drama, not least because she manages a company known for its delectable pork jerky.
The writing is occasionally too much, metaphors sometimes belabored. For example, Jasmine considers Iskandar not as a hero, but as a “safe berth for when things got too stormy ... The road of their affair long rutted with wheel tracks to follow, even with eyes half-closed. They knew which potholes to best avoid, when to veer onto the verge.” Despite occasional excesses, there are nice descriptions too—a clerk has “Brylcreamed hair jutting out in apprehension,” and “his shirt pocket is sagging from sweat.”
I find books about home and identity, such as The Accidental Malay, appealing. I also think it takes courage to write a story centered on race and/or religion. Bahrin has done this with aplomb, and I hope she continues to write novels.
Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday morning of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark.