BOOKS – The aunties investigate

Fans of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series will find Princess Play by Barbara Ismail (Monsoon Books) and Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu (William Morrow) much easier to relate to.

Both set in this part of the world (Southeast Asia), the stories involve nosy mature women who are led by instinct and niggling details. Although separated by time – Princess Play happens in 1970s Kelantan, Malaysia while Aunty Lee is right at home in contemporary Singapore – there is something familiar about these hospitable, motherly women.

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In a languid style reminiscent of coastal Malaysia in a time of few distractions, Mak Cik (aunty) Maryam finds herself once again drawn into a police investigation into the unnatural death of a neighbor. The second in the Kain Songket Mysteries series returns us to the kampong environment, sandy beaches, bustling marketplace where Maryam plies the famous brocade of Kelantan, and to quirky Malay idioms.

We become better acquainted with Maryam’s family, and to her own vulnerabilities which has to be resolved by the fascinating ceremony known as Main Puteri (Princess Play), thus described by the U.S National Library of Medicine:

The permainan puteri (usually abbreviated to main puteri) is an indigenous Kelantanese healing ceremony in which the bomoh (traditional medicine-man), the sick individual and other participants become spirit-medium through whom puteri (spirits) are able to enact a permainan (‘play’). It has been successfully used as a psychotherapy for depression. The bomoh assisted by his minduk (master of spirits) and a troupe of musicians, is able to provide a conceptual framework around which the sick individual can organize his vague, mysterious and chaotic symptoms so that they become comprehensible and orderly. At the same time the bomoh is able to draw the sick individual out of his state of morbid self-absorption and heighten his feelings of self-worth. The involvement of his family, relatives and friends tends to enhance group solidarity and reintegrate the sick individual into his immediate social group.

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In Aunty Lee’s Delights, Ovidia Yu gathers all things Singaporean to create a delicious stew of murder, expats, homophobia, class consciousness, foreign domestic workers, maternal love, derangement, and food of course.

Be patient. The first quarter of the book crawls, but it takes off as the widow, Aunty Daisy Lee, owner of a Peranakan eatery prods the police in the right direction while serving snacks and meals to all and sundry. You get hungry reading about fluffy coconut-fragrant rice and curry puffs that can make a policeman swoon.  And then, there are Aunty Lee’s apt (but funny) cooking-and-life analogies.

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