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Thursday, 8 August 2019

Review: Bitter Leaves by Tabatha Stirling

Recently on Twitter I saw a competition: post a photo of a plant which refuses to die no matter who neglected. I uploaded a photo of my Peace Lily which clearly doesn't thrive under my 'care' but somehow clings to life. I won the competition - the prize being a copy of Bitter Leaves by Tabatha Stirling.

Bitter Leaves is set in Singapore, where I lived for a couple of years as a child. So I was very much aware of the ‘maid’ culture but to be honest, I didn’t realise it was still flourishing nowadays. This is a clever book; the concept is unusual, concentrating as it does on four women who all live on the same street in an affluent area. It took me a few chapters to work out who was whom, but these women’s voices soon came across loud and clear. All are written in first person and the characterisation is exceptional. I soon began to know who was talking, even without reading the chapter headings. The characters’ lives do coincide, but perhaps not as much as one might expect and actually, this adds to the sense that this is a neighbourhood, rather than a friendship group, so the odd time these characters do meet, it very much makes sense within the setting. 

I recognised some of the references and it’s clear that the author has undertaken a great deal of research. The cultural melting pot that is Singapore is laid open here for scrutiny (and doesn’t always come out shining) and it’s something that I remember from my time there. Ultimately this is a story of women, their helplessness, their inventiveness, their courage and their beauty. All of them are, for one reason or another, displaced, and all have their own strong views which shape and are shaped by their experiences. I found it deeply affecting. At times it’s not an easy read, but it shouldn’t be, given its subject matter. But it’s not joyless; far from it. I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, and who wants to read a thoughtfully written, thought-provoking book.

My winning entry!
Now that I've read the book, I realise just how symbolic the original competition was. For it makes me think again about those delicate plants who manage to survive despite not receiving the correct care to make them thrive.

I should also add that this was a competition with absolutely no strings. I was not asked to review Bitter Leaves. My review appears here simply because I loved the book.

Find Tabatha on Twitter and at Stirling Publishing

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