Review: Revenge by S. L. Lim

Revenge begins, as it always does, with an act of violence: 11-year-old Yannie is thrown against a door by her 14-year-old brother Shan. It’s not the pain that bothers her though, “it’s the powerlessness of it.” They live with their parents in an unnamed provincial area, probably in Malaysia. Their father owns a small grocery and they are poor, not grindingly so but an exhausting “conveyor belt of constant minor indignities”. Her mother “prefers the male to the female”. It’s all so awfully mundane, “the household bully, the doting mother, ineffectual paterfamilias”.

Yannie is a precocious girl. Her maths teacher, recognising her talent, tells her, “If you are going to achieve anything you must get out of this country. There is no future here”. But she is also “female, provincial and poor”; the family’s resources go into her brother’s education, while she stays at home caring for her ageing parents. When that job is done Yannie, now in her fifties, is free to pursue her brother and his family to Sydney in the name of the titular revenge.

Subtitled “murder in three parts”, Revenge begins with an exhilarating and ironically titled (it takes up a full third of the book) Prologue that makes you truly loathe Shan and ache for the promise of the novel’s title. It is pitch-perfect writing; almost an entire life painted with dazzling brevity. The second part set in Sydney and structured chapter-by-chapter is rather more conventional although often pointed, but the elegiac and fragmentary Epilogue returns to the force of the opening. It is in all a thrilling read; furious, with moments of hard-won joy and humour.

Of course in the end, as awful as Shan is (and he is truly awful), he is ultimately something of a scapegoat. Yannie’s real enemies, the things that make her anger “draw a band around her body, constricting her chest” are those abstract things that are harder to stick a knife into but more insidious: poverty, patriarchy, the drudgery of capitalism, the inequality of globalisation. In Sydney Yannie experiences how the one per cent (I nearly wrote “the other half”, that toxic meme of capitalism) lives, and is equally infuriated and enchanted by the dreams of her niece Kat. “How dare you how dare you how dare you,” Yannie thinks to herself when she sees that Kat’s talent will be recognised and nourished.

Revenge then is about “the lives you might have had”. It is a generational story, of the parents who work so as not to be poor, of their children who work to send their children overseas, so that they can finally live full lives:

Our grandparents had two concerns: calories and shelter. Our parents went a step beyond that and asked: are the children at school, and will they get good jobs? … Questions of fulfilment, autonomy, abstract concepts of societal value – she doubted whether any of those had ever crossed her father’s mind.

As the novel shows, girls and women bear the brunt of this labour. Yannie’s mother must share her daughter’s rage, but turns it sideways. “Girls are too hard,” she says, “They’re always judging other people, hiding their feelings, holding grudges. See, you’re like an elephant, Yannie – you never forget when you have an enemy.” But Yannie’s femininity is complicated by her queerness, and her refusal to bow to social pressure and marry a man. Although her sexuality remains mostly unexpressed and unfulfilled, perhaps it is a source of her resistance and unwillingness to settle for what everyone tells her is her lot in life.

As Yannie learns, revenge is not the path to fulfilment. “There is no villain, no evil monster who has deliberately set out to quell her talents,” Yannie comes to realise:

It’s just the lottery of circumstance, a game she lost before she was even born. Lay down your arms, woman: this isn’t a battle, it’s a rout. And yet. And yet.

In that “and yet” you can feel possibility, seething beneath the surface.

Gay rating: 5/5 for a lesbian protagonist and some queer themes and sex

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