A sudden tragedy loosely sews the narratives of the building’s various disparate inhabitants together, creating an overall portrait—and a likely unexpected one—of Singapore today.
If I Could Tell You captures community in a changing Singapore, with each character offering a glimpse into a certain world. Without descending into cliche, Lee juggles stories of various minorities, and through the prism of their lives we get an idea of what Singapore as a whole is like.
The poignant story of the tragedy is worthy of a lengthier treatment of its own. Ah Tee, a resident who has worked at the base of Block 204 in a kopitiam for most of his life, simply can’t face his future. “What happened was we didn’t see. We never saw him,” says Alex, a lesbian resident, who herself endures a bout of homelessness.
In fact, each of the characters and their stories in this restrained novella is fleshy enough to leave the reader wanting far more. Alex, for instance, manages to hold down a job as she navigates her family’s rejection, and endures the very same invisibility as Ah Tee as she hides her situation from her coworkers and customers at a fancy cafe. “I imagined they wouldn’t want a homeless person making their morning cappuccino, handling the food orders. No one ever asked though and I realised that no one looked at other people the way they looked at themselves. Not half as close.”
The Bangladeshi immigrant worker, meanwhile, feels incredibly lucky to wind up in Block 204 after living in a container, and though he works hard at a cleaning job Singaporeans don’t want, feels the very opposite of invisible. His race and presence invites the hatred of locals:
“I try to ignore them, some of the others don’t even notice, but I see the people on the streets quietly wishing we weren’t there and occupying the air and space on their island. This wonderful country.”
There’s the elderly lady whose age hides a life marred by an horrific loss under Japanese occupation. “Tch, I’ve seen worse. When the Japanese were here. Much worse,” she says. And the brave housewife who decides to emerge from invisibility to learn English at the local community college.
Read If I Could Tell You to have a light shone onto the invisible lives of those for whom the glitz and glamour of Singapore’s skyscapers and malls is quite irrelevant.
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