REVIEW | The Inlet by Claire Tham

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Based loosely on a true incident, The Inlet explores the social changes that have washed over Singapore in recent years.

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It is always thrilling to sink into a story told from multiple characters’ perspectives. This narrative technique is used to great effect in The Inlet, more so because it is combined with flashbacks and flash forwards, all of which surrounds the tragedy at the heart of the book. The result is a multilayered tale deserving of its inclusion in the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize shortlist.

A beautiful and aloof bar hostess from China has been found dead in the pool of a luxury estate. In its aftermath, a cast of strangers, old acquaintances and blood relations are left to unravel the conundrum. Such a premise easily pulls the reader into the story straightaway, but as the investigation progresses, the story shapes up to be not quite the a mystery novel one expects. It is instead an acute social commentary on the Singapore society and the drastic changes it has had to endure.

As the book takes its introspective turn, every character’s life is placed under scrutiny: from the bar owner who brings in foreign girls, to the Assistant Superintendent in-charge of the case, from the man that the girl last spent the night with, to his uncle who owns the house where the death occurs, and many others. The rich backstories reveal a web of relationships, strung together either by physical attraction, distant admiration, immediate disdain or long-standing resentment. The multi-voice format doesn’t favour any single character, and it is part of the intrigue that the most powerful person in the book is mentioned and described by everyone but is never given his own chapters.

The Singapore in the book is a city of little kindness and much opportunism. Class-conscious characters utilize each other to further their ambitions. Men score advantageous marriages and pick up sports like golf or tennis to network. Strong-willed women carve their own paths in life, brushing aside past mistakes and always planning ahead. But no matter how they strive – whether circumstances benefit one or the other for a while – life goes unabatingly on, leaving behind both joys and sorrows to be eroded by time.

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