Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book Review: What Things Mean

What Things Mean
By Sophia N. Lee
Scholastic, Singapore 2016

I am trying to remember when I first met Sophia N. Lee. Was it in a KUTING workshop or during the PBBY Kabanata Workshop? I couldn't recall anymore. What I remember is reading the three chapters of a novel that Sophia N. Lee was working with at the time. It had a narrative voice that was sensitive, introspective and curiously delightful to read. I was intrigued at the format she was trying to experiment with. Each chapter began with a word and what followed were definitions of it. I immediately warmed up to the fledgeling novel.

One of my hobbies when I was in my tweens, and up to my teenage years, was that I collected words, quotes and paragraphs that strike me as powerful, subtle, poignant, riveting and mind boggling. During those wonder years, I had no awareness of the purpose of collecting such "stuff". I loved to read (I still do) and words fascinated me (still). So, I jotted down in a notebook, all the words, quotes and paragraphs I could find that piqued my fancy. Some words I remember. Others I forgot. I realized I needed to use them. I did so by keeping a diary. My curated words and quotes, lines of poetry and paragraphs finally found another home, another life. I grew up, of course, and started collecting other things.

But that childhood memory remains. It is one of those memories that make me ask myself, to this day, why I did that when my friends were interested in something more exciting than collecting words. That's why, when I first read Sophia N. Lee's drafts, I saw my fourteen year old self: a word collector trying to find the meaning of things.

I have connected one dot to another.

What Worked

What Things Mean is about Olive who sees herself a little different from her cousins and her classmates. It bothers her, a lot, but Sophia N. Lee approaches this personal issue with a nuanced narration of stories from her quirky uncles, her cousins, her aunts, her grandmother and her mother who has her own unique style of evading the truths that Olive wishes to discover.  Her journey towards self discovery is a quiet one; subtle and insightful. Thank you, Ms. Lee, for this portrayal of the un-emo teenager.

I am so tired of the big drama and the loud characterization of obnoxious teens, especially in mainstream telenovelas and kalyeserye. In real life, some can be overly dramatic and annoying. True. There are those who suffer in silence and somehow, turn out fine later on. To me, this teenager was given a voice through Olive.

I enjoyed her conversations with her uncles the most. Her aunts, her grandmother and her mother are all strong women characters. Each is presented with a personal battle and could hold their own in the midst of their internal conflicts. Yet, it is the male characters whom I found to be giving more sensible advice to Olive. While the women in the novel are always there for each other, most times, she feels isolated in their midst. But, don't we all feel this way in our own family sometimes? The thing is, the uncles and her father are either often away or missing, however, the men in this novel made a bigger impact on me.

I cried when Uncle Ricky had to leave again. I cried when Uncle Sol's postcards are left unappreciated. I cried when Olive finally met her father. I cried for their wives and their daughters who must cope, endure and accept that taking leave is part of life.

The truth is not an easy pill to swallow. But, it sets us free. Olive's journey to this new found freedom has just begun.

What did not work

There is no sequel.

So I won't know how Olive's relationship with her father progressed. I am left with a hole full of questions. Only my imagination could fill in the gap for answers. Which, if you think about it, isn't that bad at all.

I read this book at a time in my life when I am battling with my own issues of detachment. I couldn't thank Ms. Lee enough for getting in touch with me. I am glad I accepted to review this book because once again, I realized that the gaps, the spaces and the lacunas in our lives are necessary to complete us and make us whole again.

I am honored and privileged to have witnessed the life cycles of Olive, the novel's turn about into a published book, and that of Ms. Sophia N. Lee, Filipina and writer.

Recommended for readers age 13 and up!

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