I was intrigued by the first two collections of short stories by Malaysian author Wong Ming Yook, In The Courtyard Of The Sun (2014), and The Library Of Sighs (2015).

Her fine language, surreal themes, and vivid settings are captivating in these two books. These strengths outshine her storytelling skills, though, which I felt were a bit weak back then. I had looked forward to her latest book, The Chrysanthemum Lover, hoping that she would address this issue.

There are indeed some gems in this book. The strongest story is “The Hog’s Goodbye”. The humanlike hog seems real and believable, and the author succeeds in fleshing out this peculiar character.

Most of her better tales showcase child protagonists. Two girls who grow up in remote areas embrace their strange destinies in “The Crocodile’s Smile” and “The Desert Tree”. The former features a girl from the desert while the latter is about a mute girl in the countryside.

Wong Ming Yook's third collection of stories could have been betterTwo little girls in two worlds become friends through an ancient social media platform created by a tiny bird in “Nu Guo”. One of the children also appears again as the princess in “The Land Of Bliss”.

In fact, the book would have been more impactful if Wong’s other stories were connected in some way, too. The characters could have lived in the same worlds, or have the same social systems, or encountered each other in different stories.

Wong has churned out fables and shaped her worlds to be timeless, unbound by geographical boundaries. Her tales remain surreal, as they are in the first two books. Unfortunately, her characters remain vague, undeveloped and unexplored. I feel that she plays it way too safe here, hiding her characters behind a thick screen. I could only observe them from afar.

I was also disappointed with her storytelling: while the concepts are intriguing, the execution does not do them justice. Many of these tales feel stretched, distant, and unmemorable.

This is evident throughout the book. The title story sets the collection off to a slow and dragging start. This is followed by “The Full Moon”, a rendition of the fable of the moon fairy, which does not move much faster. The pace does pick up slightly after these two opening pieces, but I still didn’t get that wow factor.

“The Red Swing” is a haunting tale that merges past, present and future. In “The Land Of Bliss”, the author rushes through the reigns of four queens – one can barely begin imagining the first queen before the next one, and the next one, enters the setting.

In “The Yellow Rope”, a man rebels at a strict dress code and decides to be different. “The Cave” features the life and destiny of seven greedy sisters. “The Storyless Village” is visited by a stranger who tells stories and becomes much loved by the unimaginative villagers. In “Drinking Tea With Immortals In The Windy Woods”, an old man tries his best to cope with tragedy.

I wrote in my review (available online at tinyurl.com/star2-wong) of Wong’s previous book that she has so much potential and is set for bigger things. I am rather sad to read her latest work and write this review. Perhaps these tales were written earlier and only published later? Because they actually seem less polished than her previous works, and also give the impression that not as much time has been dedicated to them. I hope her next book will be a pleasant surprise.

The Chrysanthemum Lover And Others Tales

Author: Wong Ming Yook

Publisher: Gerakbudaya, short stories