The Last Chapter by Alicia Loh

by Susan Abraham

Recently, I read and finished with a long cool breath and mind you, while still not yet missing my coffee; 13 year old *Alicia Loh‘s ambitious 70-page novella called The Last Chapter.

This silent reading episode of course, taking place one blissful morning  while still in bed in my hotel room.  I remember being at peace with all the world, even as the book would dutifully outline a series of melancholy events that stoutly failed to rouse me into grief.   This, surrounding the day-to-day events of a confused protagonist.

What compels us to buy what we do? I was attracted to The Last Chapter initially for the vibrant blue that stood out on the rack. The soft shimmers projected silky threads of shades in-waiting like something beautiful, ready to be picked up, gazed upon and caressed.

I had wanted to talk about The Last Chapter then but preoccupied with the rushed notion of flying to  Singapore, had allowed thoughts to be shelved on the back-burner.

The plot rests with a promising swimmer and hopeful Harvard student, 17 year old Piper, who much to her own amazement is promptly disowned by a seemingly scornful mum when she fails to qualify for the Olympics.  Piper flees to a river where deluged by mournful thoughts of failure, tries to end her life by drowning.

She is stopped in the nick of time from an elegiac notion of  self-proclaimed tragedy, by a young  strange man, described in a way that a reader could only perceive to be nothing short of handsome.  Far from a supposed romance, the story delightfully plods its way into a dark mystery involving a series of broken family connections .  Cryptic clues made up of notes, letters and a locket, hint at Piper’s mother’s shocking if not churlish behaviour. Each unravels a different secret.

I enjoyed Loh’s studied composition and  skilled if not painstaking dialogue of events.  She also sketched out a thoughtful  characterization where personalities shone to supplement a story that flowed with the same direct smoothness through the pages  in a similar pattern of the river Loh describes so vividly, and which acts as a brilliant central theme .   At just 13, Loh’s prose is already flawless and fluent.

Still  at 13, when perceptions, emotions and introspections  are likely to  rely heavily on idealism, I feel that Loh has rested on a fair bit of English romanticism – something that I sometimes come across in a few other local works of Malaysian fiction by adult authors these days – there seems to be a current conflict as an author wrestles with trying to personify a distinct Malaysian sophistication but resting finally on  specific English adjectives borrowed from Britain’s popular modern classics or even that odd whiff of Blyton, if you may, where measured against the Malaysian-ness of something, leaves a story slightly jagged and jarred.

This would be risky venture certainly as flavours and moods that may account for  a present atmosphere instantly vanishes as an interested reader reluctantly abandons the present tale to remember another story from a different place.

Or perhaps it is simply someone like me, a neutral Malaysian reader from abroad, and one who constantly has her eye on regional literature, who  will be astute enough to spot the struggle of two different cultures on a single page of prose.  This, as is evident in parts, in Loh’s  novella.    Letters, lockets, trunks and other common clues found in Western mysteries or predictable British romances find their way into Loh’s inspirations.

The setting is not Malaysian. As a reader, I had to figure this out somehow which added to confusion as well.

In the same vein, I must say that I enjoyed Loh’s very clear and  definitive ideas and talent for suspense; a trait I hope she eagerly develops. Alicia Loh would make a superb mystery writer. She is also excellent at characterization and could easily pen scripts or plays.

In The Last Chapter, there  lay something all the more genuinely Nancy Drew-ish about each hapless and confusing event that spiralled Piper into an eternal whirlpool of distress.

In fact, the mysterious caring lad who invites Piper to take refuge at his home is credibly drawn out. His name is Jaeson and both he and his hostile sister, Autumn will lead Loh through deeper journeys into the unknown. I really enjoyed Loh’s natural flair for suspense.

At the end though, I found the last pages rushed and vague.  The conclusion proved too abrupt for me to derive any further excitement.

Still, a splendid show from Loh for her competent writing, an initially fascinating story and certainly an ingenious structure, which kept me happily hooked to the end.  I very much look forward to her next book.

Further reading & viewing of photographs:
*Alicia Loh suffers from the incurable Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 which results in the weakening of muscles. Her novella was sponsored and published by MPH Publishing Malaysia. Here are some information/photos of Loh’s recent book launch. Each book costs 15 Malaysian ringgit and all proceeds will go towards Loh’s medical fund. International readers could place an order with MPH Online.com

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen Resta on February 21, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Fascinating, all of it. From the attraction to the color blue in the cover (I remember having to buy Claudia Roden’s “Arabesque” (here on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/030726498X/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=486539851&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0375405062&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=1QH6WW5XXP18582KD359) for the color blue in the cover . . .

    to the age of the author, and the other notes.
    Thanks for offering food for thought, Susan. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Posted by Suneetha on February 22, 2010 at 2:23 am

    Sue

    This was a really intersting post and I am looking to buy the book soon 🙂

    Reply

  3. Hi Karen & Sunee.
    Thanks for the lovely support.
    Alicia Loh is a really clever girl. 🙂
    I on my part, have polished up this article and you will find it fairly different reading, better layered if you try another attempt.
    I wrote it all out quickly last night so did it again properly this morning. xx

    Reply

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