A Subtle Degree of Restraint

Updated: 20 Apr 2012

Time Out says

Rating: 3.5/5, RM24.90

Often instructors of extended creative writing workshops use the time with their students – alternating between throwing words in the air and on paper as pens push – to produce stories that can be collected, collated and bound into a book. A proof of the students’ successful participation. A trophy for those who pressed their pens to the final period. Or tapped on their tablets. ‘A Subtle Degree of Restraint’ falls into that category. Except that these ‘students’ have been writing for awhile. Some are themselves instructors of creative writing. Published writers even. This collection of nine short stories by nine writers is born of workshops spread over three years under the auspices of the British Council here and Spread the Word in the United Kingdom.

Nine stories belie the fact that more participants were involved in these workshops. These nine – of however many that started, came, wrote some and dropped off – have demonstrated that writing is hard work. Discipline required. And good writing – easy to read, engaging, artful but without being self-consciously so – is even harder. These nine stories are delightful to read.

The overt thrust of these workshops is to ‘support Malaysian writers and encourage them to draw inspiration from the energy, diversity and architecture of Kuala Lumpur’. However, it is clear that much inspiration is also drawn from our national pastime or rather, preoccupation – eating and drinking. Our love of food. Food is present in all stories (if you count ‘a dining set from D’Italia’ in ‘The Prize’ as evocative of food). Our relationship to food defines who we are (‘A Subtle Degree of Restraint’). Food links its partakers to the past like a genealogy chart (‘Christmas in Amritsar’). Break of day mealtime occasions a painful memory in ‘A Boy has Drowned.’ Coffee provides the prelude to a wished-for tryst (‘Intermission). ‘Teatime in Bangsar’ says it all, while in ‘Warrior Woman’ the narrator apologises for conversations on the train because ‘we never had coffee together in some cafe’. A boy’s troubles with the occupying Japanese begins when the latter looks for food. And in the final story ‘Strangers’ chocolate is used to seduce young children.

Perhaps there can be no subtle restraining from food. Not by Malaysians. Not even writers. SH Lim

Tags: Book reviews