In this novel review, we will look at how cultural elements can play a role in the message of the author. We’ll also dive into the meat of Beauty Queens of Bishan by Akshita Nanda.
There are some novels that should have a cast of characters and how they’re related to the other characters at the very beginning. A family tree of sorts. This was one of those. I talk about this and more in the following novel review. Let me know in the comments if you think you’ll read this one!
A Matter of Culture
In a culture where people might go by their first name or last name or title of honor based on the circumstance, confusion is imminent in a story like Beauty Queens of Bishan, which takes place in Singapore. As a result, I didn’t know who was coming or going. After a while I could keep each character straight fairly well, but struggled throughout the entire book to remember who was who and what the relationships were. From one sentence to the next a character might be called by her first name and then her last name and then older sister in Malay!
Of course that’s just a surface issue, but it did complicate matters and created a stalling effect.
Beyond that, Beauty Queens of Bishan is a dive into the beauty culture at large and more specifically in Singapore. I read this book for one of my book clubs and was glad to have the opportunity to read a story by a local author that very much expressed the culture of everyday Singapore. In the vein of Crazy Rich Asians, this story takes us into the heart of some of the cultural nuances that create the foundation and heartbeat of Singapore.
I found it strange to read about locations and specific train lines that I frequent. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read such a “local” story before. But then I’ve never lived in such a big city before. I wonder if people feel the same if they live in New York City, for example, and read a story based there. Does it make it too close to home to enjoy as a fictional story? Are the lines too blurred?
Beauty Competitions in Singapore?
But I haven’t gotten to the heart of the story yet. This fun novel is about an area in Bishan where quite a few interesting salon owners have established beauty shops. We see the inner workings of the shops and their owners. And we also see a rich mommy who is trying to stay in the limelight despite growing older and having a baby.
The essence of the story takes place surrounding a beauty contest for Mrs. Grand Glam Singapore. We also see plenty of backstabbing but more often the coming together in unity and harmony, which is Singapore’s overarching message and goal.
There are several other issues that the author glosses over in the novel as well. They all dealt with beauty and image, but some seem thrown in there without enough fleshing out to do the topic justice. For example, we discover one of the teenage daughters has been starving herself and ends up in the hospital. However, it’s all over and dealt with very quickly. It just seems too big a topic and issue to gloss over. There are several items like this throughout that feel “thrown in”.
What’s She Really Trying to Say?
While the novel deals with body image in a swift manner, the topic of social media is heavily addressed throughout the book. However, none of us in our book club were completely clear as to whether the author had a negative or positive view of it. This seemed to be the consensus on several topics. What is her position exactly? The books ends without a clear answer.
It’s not always necessary for an author to spell out for their readers what their thoughts are on a topic. Perhaps they want the reader to decide, or the author isn’t decided, and therefore leaves the topic neutral while exploring it through the characters’ interactions with that topic.
Whatever the case may be, for this particular novel that often seemed to be heading in one direction and then quickly and often coasted into neutral, we wondered if the hesitancy came from worry that the government here might frown upon anything too bold and forthright. Singapore has worked tirelessly and diligently to secure racial and cultural harmony in this country. And it is not to be disturbed in any way.
While I love this aspect of living here and the safety it provides, I would hope that it wouldn’t cause an author to not be able to fully explore various and difficult topics in their books.
Overall this was a lovely novel, and I hope you enjoyed my review. It was a fun read with a lot of sassy characters. If you’re looking to understand Singapore culture a bit better, Beauty Queens of Bishan might be a fun place to start. Just don’t expect to go too deeply into any particular topic.
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